World Bank Sr. Infrastructure Specialist Gerald Ollivier interacts with passengers on the new Wuzhou-Nanning rail line
The first half of the NanGuang railway line  opened in mid April 2014. It is one of the six railway projects currently supported by the World Bank in China. It connects the city of Wuzhou to Nanning, two cities located 240 km apart, in the relatively poor autonomous region of Guangxi. The train, a brand new Electric Motorized Unit (see picture below), is clean and modern. It cuts across a highly mountainous terrain, zooming at about 200 kph through many tunnels and bridges.
We rode the train starting in Wuzhou and started interviewing people on board the train, sometimes with double translation as the local dialect is quite different from Mandarin. The train was well utilized, with about 75% of seats occupied by the time we reached the second station. Riders were from all walks of life. Most were first time riders, although there were a few regular users already.
Here are some of the stories we heard:
- We met two farmers with their two young kids. They had been visiting their relatives for the second time using this train, travelling from Liuzhou to Zhaoqing in Guangdong. They used to meet their family, but infrequently as the bus trips were unpleasant, very long (about 8 hours from Liuzhou to Wuzhou), and dangerous particularly at night, considering the winding roads in Guangxi. They described this new line as a chance to meet their family more frequently, especially after the whole line opens, and to do so safely at a cost a bit lower than the bus (slightly below 0.05US$ per km).
- Two middle-aged migrant workers, a man and a woman, travelling to their next job 200 km away. There, they will do some house decoration for a while, before moving to their next job. They felt the train made their access to job opportunities easier and more convenient, compared to having to take the bus. They felt the fares were reasonable.
- A couple in their mid-30s, travelling to Guilin. The lady worked for a hospital and was a frequent business traveler. It took her four hours driving to reach her destination in Nanning before, a number that had been halved at this point. It meant for her that short and frequent trips to Nanning were now possible. She recommended increasing the number of trains each day to allow for regular day trips, as three was too little. (The number of trains is expected to grow when the full line opens.)
- A retired man travelling from Guiping to Guilin. He owned a home in both places, and was taking this line for the first time. He used to travel by long-distance buses, sometimes with a transfer. He thought the train was more comfortable and shorter, although more expensive than the bus he used before (US$19 compared to US$12), as the train entails a transfer and the bus route is more direct for that trip.
- In the first class cabin, we met a businessman working for a listed pharmaceutical company in Guangdong. He was already using the train more than 7 times a month. His business turnover had grown by 15 percent since the train opened, an achievement he attributed to his ability to meet more clients with the railways. He was eager to get a better connection to Guangzhou as well, since this is where the research lab for his company is located. The fare of a little over 0.06 US$ per km in first class was very reasonable in his view, as he would drive otherwise. The train ride was less tiring.
- A couple of young fashionable ladies, involved in sales, riding the train for the first time to attend a conference in a city 150 km away. They were glad to be able to travel in comfort at a reasonable price rather than taking a bus. Of course they did take a few snapshots with the Laowai (“foreigner”) who interviewed them…
- Last, a couple of people, well in their senior years at 73 and 81. For them, it was the joy of taking a travel to Guilin for tourism and to do so in a way that was still comfortable enough for them to enjoy. They felt that the bus, while available, was not comfortable enough at their age. They were excited to take their first ride in a fast train.
But this is only half of the story, as the second half of the railway line connecting Wuzhou to Guangzhou will open at the end of year, connecting one of the richest provinces in China with one of the poorest. To be followed...