25Apr2013

Trains, Stations and the Narrative of Power

Waiting room at Harbin Xi train station.

Harbin Xi railway station sits way out in the west of town. It’s an enormous red brick affair, a grandiose arch that towers over windswept, snowclad plazas, its waiting room a blaze of dominant glass.

The Chinese government completed it last December as a stop on a brand new line that runs from here to Dalian, the most northerly port to survive this savage winter with its sea still liquid. North of Dalian, the waves stop, the salt sea clots and the foam turns into floes.

Harbin Xi (HaXi) station is so new it doesn’t even figure on Google Maps, so new that the stores are almost empty, so new that signs direct you to a metro that does not yet exist.

They have been building Harbin’s metro, on and off, since 1973, when tensions with Russia were high enough for the army to dig a web of shelter tunnels below the city

They were supposed to finish the first line in December, to tie in with the new station: by 2020, Harbin will be one of 40 Chinese cities with its very own metro.


So new is Harbin Xi, in fact, that the apartment blocks and malls around it are not yet finished. It sits like an island in a whirl of construction, an island of bricks, concrete, cranes, and girders that will merge, inevitably, into the rest of the city, like globs of seaweed meshing in the Sargasso Sea, great fantasies of pink concrete, topped with domes, towers, minarets and crenellations.

What are they waiting for? The metro?

It’s a strange city, Harbin. An urban sprawl, but on the edge of nowhere, a city born from railways.

But for the river, there’s no barrier to its expansion across these empty, rolling plains. New blocks spring up in isolation, and sprout siblings. Luxury, designer living enclaves, complete with malls, on a road that feels as if it goes to nowhere, but is just another suburb in the making – framed by vast hoardings advertising lifestyle dreams in Chinglish.

And more people, it feels, are coming to this city every day. Unless a crash comes, and the cranes, like in Dubai, just freeze, one day, in mid-air, and everything stops: unless (until?) someone stops believing, the economy stops growing, and the house price bubble bursts with a bang that will shatter the world.


Harbin Xi station might look and feel like a vanity project, but it’s not so simple. The new high speed rail line connects up the major cities in three Chinese provinces, home to well over 100 million people – that’s more than Mexico, more than five times all Australia.

Over ten million people live in Harbin, more than in all of London or New York: over six million people live in Dalian, more than in Los Angeles, Singapore or Finland.

We’re headed to Jilin, the second city of Jilin Province. A tiddler by Chinese urban standards, its population is a little larger than New Zealand’s.

It used to take more than five hours to cross the 200-odd kilometres between the two cities. Now it takes barely two. It used to take nine hours to travel 900k to Dalian from here. Now it’s barely five.

The propaganda has it that this is the world’s fastest alpine bullet train, capable of travelling at speeds of 350kph and higher in temperatures from -40°C (-40°F) to +40°C (+104°F), the range that’s needed in this savage climate, with its long biting winters and brief scalding summers.

And in a world where the average educated Chinese citizen trusts their government roughly as much as we trust ours – well, that could be quite something.


Trains in China do many things. They transport goods and people from place to place. They open up the country to its own citizens, and foreigners, too. As vast construction projects, they drive economic growth. And, in environmental terms, they help mitigate the increase in air traffic and aviation emissions.

But, most of all, with a line like this, and a station like this, the high-speed railways tell a story: a story of the triumph of Chinese engineering, Chinese science, Chinese construction and Chinese power.

Underlying this? Anything the Japanese do, the Chinese can do it better. (And if you’re not au fait with some of the reasons China and Japan don’t get along, I recommend you read this post.)

Every science museum we’ve visited in China has sections devoted to high-speed rail, sections to the space programme – the National Railway Museum in Beijing has a bullet-train simulator for kids to drive.

A fast, slick train like this – or even a fast, slick train like the Maglev in Shanghai, which will travel at 400kph if you catch it at the right time of day – tells you you’re in a superpower.

Yes, still. Yes, even after the Wenzhou disaster.

And the train we’re taking is super-special. It’s not just a high-speed train. It rides on high-speed rails. No “snow on the line” excuses up here in the Siberian north: these rails are ice-proof in temperatures as low as -40.


There’s barely a queue at the ticket office.

I could, in fact, have bought our tickets the same day, a rare thing in China. The halls are hardly empty, but still they echo: there are spare seats aplenty, capacity for growth.

And it’s a splendid train. Slick, modern: we’re riding second class, which is close to first class on any train I’ve ridden in Europe.

There are uniformed hostesses and conductors, an upscale snack trolley with a smartly-clad salesman, though still a hot-water dispenser to fill up your bottle of tea or hydrate your packet noodles…

It’s every bit as smart as the brand new train we took from Beijing to Shenzhen, leaving frozen lakes and birch forests in the morning, and arriving in a city where we could wear sandals and short sleeves before dark. (That’s like travelling New York to Florida, Adelaide to Brisbane, or London to Belgrade in a day – by train.)

But…

There’s no speedometer. Like every Chinese bullet train, there’s a digital display in every carriage. Like every Chinese bullet train, it shows our destination.

But this is the only bullet train I’ve ridden in China which does not show the speed. We average a little over 100kphedit: 150kph to Jilin.

And I wonder, as we amble out in search of our ski bus, whether the emperor really is wearing clothes.

4 Comments

  1. Charli says:

    There’s something quite magical about train travel although I have to say I’ve never experienced it on an ice proof bullet train!

    Fab photo of the station at the top. I’m off to read your ‘China and Japan don’t get along’ post!

  2. The emperor is definitely naked. There is a reason why so many middle class Chinese are trying to give birth overseas or send their children off to schools abroad.

    • Theodora says:

      Do you think it’s that many, Sarah? I know in Beijing and Shanghai there’s competition for the international schools from the alpha-alpha tiger mummies who want their kids to go to Ivy League universities, but you’re talking about a fraction of the ultra-elite, there, when they’re paying fees of tens of thousands of dollars annually — here in Harbin, ambitions, even at the top provincial schools, seem to stop at Beijing Da, Beijing Tsinghua or Shanghai Jiaotong.

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