High prices put brakes on China bullet train
BY KEIKO YOSHIOKA CORRESPONDENT
The Hexie CRH380, with a maximum speed of 380 kph, at Shanghai Hongqiao Station (Keiko Yoshioka)The Hexie model, based on the Hayate bullet train on the Tohoku Shinkansen Line, in Shandong province (Keiko Yoshioka)
BEIJING--Mounting costs and prohibitive prices are putting the brakes on China's ambitious high-speed rail program.
The Railways Ministry will cut the maximum speed of the Hexie bullet train from 350 kph to 300 kph, in principle, and lower ticket prices to affordable levels when it revises train schedules in July.
"We can create more legroom for safety and broaden the price range," said Sheng Guangzu, the railways minister.
Ordinary citizens have stayed away from the high-speed rail, which costs roughly three times as much as conventional trains.
A second-class seat on the Hexie costs 490 yuan (about 6,000 yen) between Guangzhou and Wuhan, compared with 140 yuan on a rapid train.
The Hexie will begin running between Beijing and Shanghai at the end of June, with some runs as slow as 250 kph. The service was originally scheduled to start at 380 kph and eventually be raised to more than 400 kph.
Plans to set up expensive luxurious compartments for the route have been dropped.
Hexie, which means harmony, is a political slogan of President Hu Jintao.
A researcher at a government-affiliated think tank said the bullet train actually "harms the image of the Hu administration that shows compassion to the weak" by putting strains on conventional train schedules.
The high-speed rail was also criticized as a "train for aristocrats" when a photograph showing only one passenger in a first-class car was circulated over the Internet.
China began construction of the high-speed rail network in 2005. The network covered a total of 8,358 kilometers as of the end of 2010. China has recorded 486 kph in a test run and set a goal of more than 500 kph.
The country has spent about 2 trillion yen on railways over the past five years. Its railway-related debt has snowballed to about 2 trillion yuan, nearly triple the level at the end of 2007.
The amount is equivalent to more than 50 percent of railway-related assets and, by some estimates, will exceed 70 percent next year.
Zhao Jian, a professor at Beijing Jiaotong University, said speeds that can be achieved technologically and speeds suitable for commercial operations are different.
"China's railway service has come to a stage in which it takes people's standard of living and management into account, rather than seeking only higher technology levels," Zhao said.
Zhao said China does not need a railway version of the Concorde, the Anglo-French supersonic jetliner that ended its commercial service due to exorbitant fares and environmental problems. China's railway expansion program suffered a setback in February, when Liu Zhijun was dismissed on suspicion of a "serious breach of discipline" after serving as railways minister for nearly eight years.
According to Chinese newspapers, Liu allegedly received 2 billion yuan in bribes from companies in Shanxi province and others over the bidding for high-speed rail projects.
Liu reportedly ordered officials to put safety on the back burner to speed up construction.
The high-speed rail program has also faced criticism from residents over environmental issues, such as noise pollution.
In April, the Ministry of Environmental Protection said it will ask the court to suspend services between Jinan and Qingdao in Shandong province unless environmental problems are rectified.
Residents have complained about noise from the high-speed rail for several years."People's voices should be more reflected on public works projects, including the high-speed rail," said Wang Yongchen, the leader of an environmental nongovernmental organization. "It's not surprising that construction costs have increased and the pace of construction has slowed."
For collectors, delivery bicycles provide a slow but glorious ride
BY LOUIS TEMPLADO STAFF WRITER
82-year-old Katsumi Yatabe specializes in maintaining, if not selling, classic delivery bicycles. (Louis Templado)American Eric Ossing, collector of vintage Japanese delivery bicycles, poses with his collection at his Kawasaki home. (Louis Templado)Vintage Japanese delivery bicycles are remarkable for their detailing. (Louis Templado)
Whether it's feather-light carbon frames and micro-handlebars, computer-controlled derailleurs or streamlined bodysuits, Tokyo's urban cyclists will buy anything, it seems, to gain more speed for less effort.
Slow down, says Katsumi Yatabe. The 82-year-old bicycle mechanic and shop owner wants riders to slow down a bit and huff and puff a little more.
Yatabe is also curator of a rare collection of one of Japan's vanishing industrial legacies: muscle-straining delivery bicycles from the early postwar years.
With fanciful names such as the Zebra or Seraph, and later replaced by more prosaic ones such as Worker, Regular and Useful, these pedal-powered draft horses once owned the road.
Their heyday was back in the first few years after World War II, when almost all motor traffic was out of operation.
You can still see a few of these die-hards around town, battered and rusted, in areas such as Tsukiji, home to Tokyo's wholesale fish market. But for most people, these bicycles are just quaint reminders of the past and not something you'd actually want to get around on.
"A lot of today's bicycles are designed with women in mind," says Yatabe, whose bicycle shop, Choju Jitensha Shokai (Long Life Bicycles), is book-ended by recycled goods shops in the Komae area of Tokyo. "Getting someplace easily is fine. But people forget that the effort to get there is also important."
Yatabe speaks from long experience. He got into the bicycle business at age 17, dealing bicycles and parts from the scores of small factories on the east side of Tokyo to bicycle shops on the west--all by bicycle. On a typical day, he says, he covered 70 kilometers.
The bicycles back then cost an arm and a leg--two month's salary, on average--and they looked it. With little to work with, craftsmen put their soul into the details. Cloisonne emblems, hand-painted piping and chrome came standard, as did ornate felt bar covers and bronze medallions boasting lifetime guarantees.
It was a world away from today's Tokyo, where nearly 340,000 unclaimed bicycles are disposed of every year, according to the Tokyo metropolitan government.
The golden age ended when the economy revved up, around the time of the 1950-53 Korean War. Bicycle prices went down, as did the quality. Yatabe himself bought a truck.
Yet his workshop, filled with vintage bicycles, remains a curious time warp. The former hair salon next door houses close to a couple dozen. All are remarkably well-preserved.
That's because Yatabe hasn't really gone out of his way to collect classics. Most of the bikes are "dead stock" from back in the day that Yatabe has hung onto. In addition to what's on display, Yatabe says he has another dozen in the back, unassembled and still in their original boxes. Every now and then he'll put one together, ostensibly to sell.
"This is a business after all, so yes, they're for sale," he says of the bikes in the workshop. (The ones in the hair dresser's are for show only and frequently appear in period films and television programs). Yet, trying to convince him to part with a bike is impossible.
"I need to tend to my old customers first, to keep their bikes running," he says, when asked to name a price.
As heavy and as unglamorous as these old machines are, some people cannot get enough of them. Eric Ossing, an American living in Kawasaki, found his first delivery bike on an Internet auction site five years ago and has never looked back.
"I was actually looking for a replacement for my custom-built 27-speed road racer, because the frame developed a crack," says Ossing, who today owns nine delivery delivery bicycles and the blog Vintage Japanese Bicycles at http://chikutakurinrin.cocolog-nifty.com/blog/.
"I realized that technology and marketing were leading me around by the nose. I wanted to get back to that childhood enjoyment of waking up and just jumping on my old single-speed Schwinn, a feeling that over the years I'd sacrificed for speed."
When his delivery bike arrived, he was so struck by the over-engineering--even the screws came embossed with logos--that he started his bilingual blog, a move that he now half-regrets.
"I guess in a way I've woven my own noose. Before I started blogging there were hardly any other bidders (for old bicycles). Now I've got some competition," says Ossing.
"Most people see these old bikes and think, 'Come on, get with the times.' But for me they just make sense. People ride now with padded pants. Well, I've got all the suspension I need and I don't have to change my clothes. I've got fat tires, relaxed geometry and a comfortable ride."
It feels like riding a Cadillac, Ossing says, except when you have to go uphill.