High-speed rail is the only way to travel in China these days, with bullet trains zipping along thousands of miles of track at speeds of up to 220 miles an hour. Now China is planning a new Iron Silk Road to link it with 17 countries in central and southeast Asia, using the same state-of-the-art technology.
Imagine the spectacular train ride from Shanghai to Singapore via Rangoon; or from Kunming in south-western Yunnan province to New Delhi, Lahore and on to Tehran. You could board at Harbin at China's border with Russia in Heilongjiang province, and embark on an epic voyage to eastern and southern Europe via Russia.
If the Chinese can pull it off, it would be a train aficionado's paradise, but the range of countries involved shows the scale of the challenge. Some are China's traditional territorial rivals, such as India; some have occasionally scratchy relationships with Beijing, like Iran.
Nations along the three planned routes are being offered all kinds of lures to agree to the high-speed lines. Cash-poor Burma's high-speed rail network is being built in exchange for raw materials for export to China, such as lithium. Central Asian economies that pump gas and oil to China are also being given financial assistance.
Eventually the plan is to board the train in London and arrive in Beijing two days later, having passed through Germany, Kazakhstan and Xinjiang province. Wang Mengshu, a rail consultant and member of the prestigious Chinese Academy of Engineering, predicts the London route will be ready by 2025.
The main obstacles to these rail dreams are political – the plans are as much about spreading Sino influence as they are about developing infrastructure – but China's rapid development of bullet trains and high-speed rail networks in the past few years means technical issues should not be a problem.
Indeed, the reason China is examining a new international dimension to its high-speed train line is the success of the domestic network so far. In a country of 1.3 billion people, rail travel is a fast and cheap way of transport.
In December, China opened the world's fastest rail link, between Wuhan and southern Guangzhou. A bullet train can cover the 664-mile journey in three hours, down from 10.5 hours. By 2013, China will have the world's most comprehensive high-speed railway network and 800 bullet trains. By 2020, it expects to have 75,000 miles of railway.
One of the big projects coming up is a high-speed link between Beijing and Shanghai. It is expected to double the capacity of the current line to 80 million passengers a year and cut travel time to four hours from 10.
The technology has been developed with plenty of input from foreign rail companies, and Chinese engineers readily admit that its bullet trains and rail lines have "absorbed" many ideas from the West. But China has been speedy in getting the technology to work, and this success is what they hope will translate well abroad. Chinese companies are building high-speed lines in Turkey and Venezuela, and are soon to bid for contracts in the US. Like China's burgeoning influence, the Silk Road could soon extend around the globe.
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