High Speed Rail (HSR) is not new to Asia, although the biggest network is now being constructed in China. HSR has been in Asia for decades and is getting upgraded all the time. As you experience various countries across North Asia, it is important to get familiar with these amazing trains and be sure to work them into your trip! The thrill of legally speeding at 340 km/h (210 mph) on the ground is an awesome feeling.
I was lucky enough to experience the early HSR in South Korea (called KTX), which opened just as I arrived there in 2004. It speeds across the country in just under 3 hours. Of course Korea is pretty small, but the KTX beats the 5+ hours car trip plus $60 tolls.
The Shinkansen, in Japan, was opened in 1964 and initially reached speeds of 210 km/h (130 mph). Their fastest Mag-Lev trains reached 581 km/h (361 mph) back in 2003. As a rule of thumb, traveling around Japan is expensive, so this rail option should be planned carefully.
Taiwan has the THSR which basically parallels their older West Coast railway. Somehow they found space on this tiny island to build Inter-County highways, traditional rail, and High Speed Rail! It is a beautiful piece of work which opened in 2007. I tried it once from Kaohsiung (a major southern city) up to Taipei (the capital city). Since there are spots rather frequently, its top speed is limited to 300 km/h (186 mph).
Mainland China’s Railway Highspeed (CRH) is the longest high-speed rail network at over 7,400km (5,000 miles), called “Gao Tie” [Gow Tee-a-uh]. I have been on it twice; once between Zhengzhou-Xi’an, and also between Guangzhou-Wuhan. My recent trip to Hengshan took 3 hours by HSR instead of 8 hours by car. Various corridors of the Chinese CRH system have been completed and the rest of the system will be completed by 2020, bringing the total length up to 25,000 km (16,000 miles). The fastest leg of this whole network is a MagLev train in Shanghai which reaches speeds of 431 km/h (268 mph). I rode this train in 2006 from Pudong airport into the city subway system. It was incredible to say the least!
Not only are the trains amazing, but the new stations being built for their specific use are mind-boggling. Opened in 2010, the Guangzhou South Station is one of the biggest in China and looks like some kind of alien spacecraft! I’ve visited this station three times and still break a sweat when I approach the main entrance. The pictures don’t even begin to describe the feeling inside this place.
High Speed Rail is not the future, but the present. It’s a reality that is sweeping across Asia and changing the speed of life on the ground. With boarding and exiting times much faster than commercial flights, while carrying many more passengers with less energy, it is an intelligent choice for countries which can make the case to its citizens. In countries whose citizens don’t get a vote, this decision comes much easier. And maybe this is a good thing during a time of increased global climate concerns.