China plans 236 mph rail link between Shanghai and Beijing

The Chinese rail Ministry has announced plans to link the nations capital with its financial capital. Beijing and Shanghai are a little over 650 miles apart, and the current rail link takes over 10 hours.

The Chinese claim to have mastered the technology required to build their own high speed trains, and plan to operate them on the new line at speeds up to 236mph (380 km/h) which should cut the current journey time in half.

Previous high speed rail projects in China include one of the first commercial Maglev links which operates between Shanghai and the airport. In 2005 a regular high speed link between Beijing and Tianjin was opened and is based on the highly successful German ICE rolling stock.

High speed rail links have changed the landscape in Europe, and dedicated high speed lines already link the UK with France, Belgium, The Netherlands and Germany.

Being able to commute from city center to city center in under 5 hours will prove to be a very efficient solution in China, and will most certainly eat away at the airline market. The line is scheduled to be completed in 2012, a mere 4 years from now.

Spain’s new high speed train connects Madrid and Barcelona

Spain’s high speed link between Madrid and Barcelona is finally open, after more than two decades of construction and administrative delay. Transporting passengers at 300 kilometers per hour (186 miles per hour), and at a price of 180 euros round-trip, the train is expected to compete with air travel.

Madrid and Seville have been connected by high speed bullet train since 1992. Motivated by the addition of the new Madrid-Barcelona line, the Spanish government says that it will have more high speed train lines than anywhere else in the world by 2010, as reported by the BBC. France recently unveiled its latest contribution to the industry of high speed trains, meaning that we can probably look forward to an even better, and certainly faster, train-connected Europe.

[Thanks, Moody75!]

Big in Japan: The Myth About Money (Part II)

So, two days ago I wrote about the Myth of Money, namely that Japan was surprisingly more affordable than you’d imagine. Needless to say, it’s hard to convince people that Japan is actually a budget-friendly destination, especially since most of us have heard crazy stories of excessive displays of wealth, such as those infamous $500 fruit boxes.

(Truth be told, they do exist – I snapped this photo of perfect melons at a luxury grocery store in Ginza, the most exclusive shopping district in Tokyo).

Of course, unless you have a pressing business engagement, or you’re trying to impress a girl with some serious bling (melons are a girl’s best friend), you shop at the local hundred yen shop (百円屋; hyaku-en-ya) like the rest of us poor working stiffs. The rough equivalent of dollar stores in North America, your local ¥100 shop carries everything from seasonal produce and budget cuts of meat to cleaning products and pet food. They’re found in virtually every neighborhood in Tokyo including Ginza (even rich people love a good bargain), and help lower the price of urban living.

Still not convinced that Japan is affordable? You guys are one tough audience!

Well, the most important thing for foreigners to know about before considering a move to Japan is what is known as a Gaijin House (外人ハウス; gaijin-hausu). Funny thing about that word gaijin – it’s actually a derogatory word used for foreigners (literally it means outsider). Of course, that hasn’t stopped us gaijin from claiming the word for ourselves, and much to the amusement of the Japanese, the word gaijin is tossed around with an air of pride, regardless of how offensive it may be.

Essentially, a gaijin house is a shared house or apartment, similar perhaps to your college dormitory, where internationals (and a few in the know Japanese people) can rent a cheap room by the month. Gaijin houses run the gamut from hundred-year old traditional Japanese buildings with tatami mats and sliding rice-paper doors to institutional concrete prisons with flickering fluorescent lights and sheet rock walls. But, they’re nearly always affordable, great places to socialize and a quintessential part of the Japanese ex-pat experience.

(Next week, I’ll be writing a piece on apartment hunting in Tokyo, which should hopefully illuminate the process of finding a room in the world’s largest megalopolis).

Finally, Japan is affordable in that it arguably has the world’s most efficient and comprehensive public transportation system. To be fair, intercity travel in Japan is very expensive, and you can expect to pay upwards of around $250 for a two-hour roundtrip bullet train between Tokyo and Kyoto. But, it costs no more than $2-3 dollars to cross the whole of Tokyo on the subway, and you’re never more than a few minutes from a station. With that said, making head and tails of the insanely complex train system is something of a rite of passage for new arrivals.

Cheap it may be, but even Japanese get lost in grid sometimes!

Well, after two columns of raving and ranting about the myth of money, I hope that I’ve at least won a few converts out there. However, if you still don’t believe me that Japan is an affordable destination, enjoy your trip to London, and let me know how those $18 Happy Meals taste!

Bullet Trains in Spain

An interesting article (which was actually a long, but well-written advertisement!) in MIT’s Technology Review this month, talks about Spain’s push to lay high-speed rail throughout the country.

Spain had been hampered historically, from interlacing their rail system with the rest of Europe, since they used a different gauge track; but they developed high-speed switching wheels that switch gauge at the push of a button, and they’re laying new track with the European standard gauge. Their push is so big, that since 2003, Spain is putting more money in rail than in roads, seeking to link all of their major cities with high-speed rail by 2020: 10,000 km in all, servicing 90% of their population.

Already, the Seville to Madrid line is fully operational (and only 2 hours, 20 minutes), and is so efficient that they’ll refund your money if the train is more than five minutes late (which happens only 0.25% of the time). Their trains reach speeds above 200 km/hour (120 mph), and hit as high as 300 kph (185 mph).

Why the push for rail? One big reason is oil independence, and another is air pollution. Rail helps with both goals, plus, it whisks travelers right into the heart of the city.