[personal profile] dmaze
As noted elsewhere, I've just gotten back from a week in Shanghai and a week in Singapore.  Both of these trips were very urban; the Zhujiajiao expedition involved a guide and a driver and two and a half hours (with traffic, both ways) in a car but otherwise we were on our own two feet and the rails.

The Shanghai subway is both modern and well-developed.  The history of Shanghai is compact enough (it was a tiny town, then 150 years ago Western powers all set up shipping facilities and settlements along one side of the river, and in the past 30 years the city has built a huge modern city on the other side too) that you can get to many of the interesting places on the subway.  Cursory X-ray bag checks at every station entrance.  We used contactless stored-value fare cards (just like the T's CharlieCard); variable fares based on distance, but mostly around 2 RMB (US$0.33) for a one-way in-city trip.

The subway was pretty easy to get around, even for a foreign visitor.  Most stations had a full barrier between the platform and the train: there was a second set of doors that the driver had to get out of the train and open at every station.  Above each of these doors was a sign saying which line, its destination, and the next and previous stops, all in Mandarin and English.  Maps of the whole system and the area around each station were easy to find.  Importantly, every station exit had a number on both maps and signs, so for instance Century Ave. exit #12 was our metro exit of choice for dinner and hotel.

We also took a day trip to Suzhou, which Google claims is 100 km and an hour-and-a-half drive from Shanghai.  Instead we took the fast train.  This involves finding the ticket office (in a separate building with its own security) and buying tickets (China ID or foreign passport required); finding the station and going to the waiting area on the departures level for our train; then finding our assigned car and seats.  The train leaves, speeds up to 300 km/h (about 175 mph; the display in the train never actually got much above 280 km/h), runs for half an hour, and stops in Suzhou, all done.  One way ticket was 39.50 RMB (about US$6.50).

Getting back was its own entertainment but it was a little bit our fault.  We wanted to buy return tickets early, found posters that were clearly train schedules, and found a comprehensible one.  So we purchased, via writing down on a piece of paper, tickets on train G7392, departing at 18:17, to 上海.  So far so good.  But on returning to the Suzhou train station, that train wasn't on the overhead displays at all...and looking at the tickets again we had asked for, and gotten, tickets on a train from Suzhou Bei (North) station, not the main station.  I could clearly interpret the information desk's little laugh as "these guys are at the wrong station but I don't speak any English and they clearly don't speak Chinese and I have no idea how to explain this to them".  We were pretty early and figured out how to navigate the ticket counter to exchange for a correct train (which only went 250 km/h and had an intermediate stop!).

I do want to note just how much this intercity train system is kicking the ass of anything in the United States, though.  "One stop per 100 km" roughly matches what long-distance trains like the Lake Shore Limited do; if they run 175 mph between stations instead of 80 mph then that can literally halve the time to Chicago.  Even the "fast" trains like the Acela Express have very short sections of actually being "fast", between Boston and New York the section south of New Haven is also 80 mph with sections like downtown Bridgeport being 25 mph.  I think something like this is the vision of the big California construction project but it takes both money and willpower to do it.  China is willing to do it; here we just can't commit.



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