HONG KONG — China began service Wednesday morning on the world’s longest high-speed rail line, covering a distance in eight hours that is about equal to that from New York to Key West, Fla., or from London across Europe to Belgrade.
Bullet trains traveling 186 miles per hour began regular service between Beijing and Guangzhou, the main metropolis in southeastern China. Older trains still in service on a parallel rail line take 21 hours; Amtrak trains from New York to Miami, a shorter distance, still take nearly 30 hours.
Completion of the Beijing-Guangzhou route is the latest sign that China has resumed rapid construction on one of the world’s largest and most ambitious infrastructure projects, a network of four north-south routes and four east-west routes that span the country.
Lavish spending on the project has helped jump-start the Chinese economy twice: In 2009, during the global financial crisis, and again this autumn, after a brief but sharp economic slowdown over the summer.
The hiring of as many as 100,000 workers per line has kept a lid on unemployment even as private-sector construction has slowed because of limits on real estate speculation. And the national network has helped reduce toxic air pollution in Chinese cities and curb demand for imported diesel fuel, by freeing up a lot of capacity on older rail lines for goods to be carried by freight trains instead of heavily polluting, costlier trucks.
But the high-speed rail system has also been controversial in China. Debt to finance the construction has reached nearly $640 billion, making it one of the most visible reasons total debt has been surging as a share of economic output in China and approaching levels in the West.
Each passenger car taken off the older, slower rail lines makes room for three freight cars, because passenger trains have to move so quickly that they force freight trains to stop frequently. But although the high-speed trains have played a big role in allowing sharp increases in freight shipments, the Ministry of Railways has not yet figured out a way to charge large freight shippers, many of them politically influential state-owned enterprises, for part of the cost of the high-speed lines, which haul only passengers.
Worries about the high-speed network peaked in July 2011, when one high-speed train plowed into the back of another near Wenzhou in southeastern China, killing 40 people.
A subsequent investigation blamed flawed signaling equipment for the crash. China had been operating high-speed trains at 350 kilometers an hour, and it cut the top speed to the current rate in response to that crash.
The crash crystallized worries about the haste with which China has built its high-speed rail system. The first line, from Beijing to Tianjin, opened a week before the 2008 Olympics; a little more than four years later, the country now has 5,809 miles of high-speed lines.
China’s aviation system has a good international reputation for safety, and its occasional deadly crashes have not attracted nearly as much attention. Transportation safety experts attribute the public’s fascination with the Wenzhou crash partly to the novelty of the system and partly to a distrust among many Chinese of what is perceived as a homegrown technology, in contrast with the Boeing and Airbus jets flown by Chinese airlines.
Japanese rail executives have complained, however, that the Chinese technology is mostly copied from them, an accusation that Chinese rail executives have strenuously denied.
The main alternative to trains for most Chinese lies in the country’s roads, which have a grim reputation by international standards.
Periodic crashes of intercity buses kill dozens of people at a time, while crashes of private cars are frequent in a country where four-fifths of new cars are sold to first-time buyers, often with scant driving experience.
Flights between Beijing and Guangzhou take about 3 hours and 15 minutes. But air travelers need to arrive at least an hour before a flight, compared with 20 minutes for high-speed trains.