China still travels by rail. That may not be news to you, but let's make a comparison.
In my hometown, there is a beautiful old train station. The grand passenger building guards over the city's main axis, it's heavy carved stone stacked in arches. Behind is a soaring iron and glass train shed. In the 1940's, when most Americans traveled by rail, it was one of the busiest train stations in the country. It closed in the seventies, after the number of passengers declined so much that the station could no longer support itself. These days it's used as a hotel and a mall. It's a common story. As passenger travel shifted to highway and plane, US passenger rail shrank to a bare minimum served by Amtrak, and much of the original infrastructure was lost. In china, the old way of traveling by rail is changing very quickly, but it isn't giving up on rail travel.
The old generation. A train station in Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi Province
China's old railway stations are relatively chaotic places, teeming with people trying to get somewhere else. China had a station building boom in the 60s and 70s. Most stations are low and flat, the only defining characteristic is a few giant red characters standing on the roof to represent the city name. Inside dark passenger waiting rooms, people wait on rows of dirty molded fiberglass chairs. There are often beautiful murals with socialist or traditional Chinese themes. The environment always seems tense with fear of thieves, others, police. If you ever happen to see indications of social instability in China, its most likely to be in old train stations.
A mural inside the passenger waiting room at Taiyuan Station
The Guangzhou-Wuhan high speed train, which opened last December, takes just 3 hours to make the journey, at a top speed of 350km. It connects the biggest city in southern China with one of the bigger cities in central China. A big part of this project was the 2 new terminal stations built at both ends. Eventually, this line will be extended north all the way to Beijing.
The China Ministry of Railways is building new stations for it's high speed rail lines. Each station is a major infrastructure project costing around US$1 billion each. The existing stations in both cities were deemed already overcrowded and unable to handle the additional passenger load of the high speed train. The area around stations today are dense with development related to the proximity of the station, so it's hard to build something new there. The new stations are far outside the city center, a 45 minute subway or bus ride away. It's probable that the areas around the new stations will eventually be densely developed. These stations will create major cities around themselves, pulling the center of the old cities toward them.
But for now, the stations are still surrounded by farm land. These stations are huge, you can see them rise like small hills as you approach. The feature that seems to connect the new stations is they are all open and light-filled. The ceilings incorporate skylights, and the light is usually moderated by lovers or shades.
The next generation. The new Wuhan station, which features an open train platform in the center
Wuhan station detail
The new Guangzhou South station and its dramatic arching roof
Beijing South Station. With some fake palm trees, just for fun
They all seem to be descendants of the old glass and steel train sheds of Europe, like the old train station in my hometown. The new stations are relatively calm. One reason is that poor travelers can't afford the high speed tickets, so there are much fewer people in a much larger space. But the stations are not that relaxing, not to me. The stations are grandiose statements, and the images are all postcard worthy. But there isn't much that is scaled to people. All the interesting detail of the building is raised far above your head, with little that is interesting down at eye level.
These expensive train stations represent a commitment to rail travel in China. But the fact that they are so far from cities reduces their advantage over air travel. The stations are almost as far from the city as airports, so when you add the travel time on both sides, the train will take a lot longer than a plane. Will the grand new generation stations themselves lead to the decline of train travel in the long term future?
The new Guangzhou South station and the Beijing South station built in 2008 were both designed by TFP Farrells, based in UK and Hong Kong. Wuhan station was design by Arep, based in Paris. The local design institutes serve as local architect-of-record. For now, the way to get to the Guangzhou South station is a shuttle bus from the Hanxi Changlong metro station on line 3. Walk to the small bus terminal above the station, and its easy to find the bus going to the South Station. The ride takes about 15 minutes each way, and costs 2 yuan. A new subway line will go there someday.
[UPDATE, October 2010: The new subway line to Guangzhou South station is now open. line 2]