They need the speed — the rail system moves a lot of people. China’s National Bureau of Statistics estimated that there were more than 2.5 billion passenger trips (that’s people versus freight) on the rails in 2016 alone. To put that into perspective, Amtrak had 31.3 million riders in fiscal year 2016, and that was a record for them.
On July 1, one type of China’s bullet trains, the Fuxing, started running with more carriages than ever — 16, which is twice as long as the trains used to run:
A Business Insider writer recently reported on his ride on one of these G trains, or gaotie, from Beijing to Xi’an, in northwestern China. The distance, he noted, is similar to traveling from New York to Chicago. The G trains cut the journey from Beijing to Xi’an from 11 hours on older trains to just four and a half hours.
Comparing the journey to a U.S. equivalent, “It would take 22 hours, with a transfer in Washington, DC.,” he writes. “And that’s with traveling on Amtrak’s Acela Express, currently the fastest train in the US with a speed up to 214 km/h (150 mph).”
China isn’t the only country that is ahead of the U.S. on the rails. Japan’s famed high-speed trains have been around for more than 50 years. And — though it’s not the first, because Taiwan also had one, — this year they launched a Hello Kitty shinkansen, or bullet train, which is both adorable and fast.
Western Europe has high-speed lines as well: Passengers can go from Barcelona to Paris in about six hours, a journey that would take twice as long by car. Saudi Arabia and South Korea also have passenger trains that top 200 miles per hour. So why doesn’t the U.S. have a powerhouse passenger rail network?
America was a railway pioneer, and you can still ride Amtrak coast to coast. There’s certainly plenty to see along the way:
But our rail system isn’t modern, and it’s focused on moving freight, not people. Building a high-speed rail network in the U.S. would require a serious update to our current system, so it would be costly.
Meanwhile, engineers in China are working on an even faster train that supposedly could travel at more than 600 miles per hour. But American engineers are dreaming big, too: Elon Musk’s “hyperloop” is looking more like an achievable reality than ever.