I was teeming with excitement prior to my first high-speed rail experience – a 2-hour trip from Shanghai to Nanjing. Because high speed rail has been so out of reach in the United States, it was, in my mind, next-generation technology. I had visions of futuristic, bullet trains throttling through the country at breakneck speeds.
The Hongqiao Station in Shanghai did not disappoint. Emerging from the (also very impressive) Shanghai metro system, we entered a high-ceilinged, bustling terminal with a collection of high end shops, restaurants and amenities that resembled many European train stations I had been to. “This sure beats Penn Station,” I thought.
It is funny how expectations can color your experience of things. When you magnify and elevate an event in your mind, the intense desire for reality to meet those expectations can actually color your observations. Because I had put high speed rail on such a pedestal in my mind, I associated it with luxury and comfort. It took a while for me to fully accept that but for the fact that we were traveling at 300kph, this train was ordinary (if not even less than nice) in many ways. The seats were less than comfortable, the interior finishes were bland, and it lacked amenities like electrical outlets, a fancy restaurant car and even wifi that I would have otherwise expected.
When I finally realized that my expectations had clouded my observations, and that the train was, in fact, not as shiny and polished and futuristic as I had envisioned, what ultimately struck me about high speed rail travel was how normal it was. It is simply a mode of transport from one city to another – ordinary transit for ordinary people. No one acted as if being on this train was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. This technology and infrastructure that is out of reach for the US has already been normalized in China.
This was another example of tension-and-reconciliation that I observed throughout the trip. There was often order where I would expect disorder. Luxury retail stores were blocks away from restaurants serving 10-yuan meals. The metro was chaos and order at the same time. The presence of the state was noticeably large, but seldom engaged with the people. The country boasts high speed rail, but it is simple and accessible to the population. And somehow, it all works.