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A train in China

A train in China. Efficient travel. Those requiring reclining seats need not apply

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The Chinese know sustainable travel

Ewan Kingston

20th October, 2009

China may have plenty of coal-fired gigawatts, but the country knows a thing or two about sustainable and efficient transport, Ewan finds

While buses had been just the ticket for my medium-length hop through the north of China, once I got to Shanghai,  my budget and my patience where now calling for a long haul. It looked like the train would be the only way. I was determined, however, not to take a sleeper - where CO2 savings are whittled away as the number of bods per carriage drop.

Luckily, there's a class of ticket in China called 'hard seat'. It's not what it sounds - there is padding for your behind - but it does have a bad reputation nonetheless. 'Don't even consider it for long trips'  was the received wisdom in the Shanghai hostel. Hard sleeper, they tell you, hard sleeper. Always up for a challenge I just had to take a hard seat ticket, 28 hours, Shanghai to Guilin.

Travellers love to moan – hard seat isn't really that bad - it just means that passengers are fitted snugly together five abreast across the train - three on one side of the aisle, two on the other. It's fairly typical. The Chinese may have coal power and giant-hydro projects by the gigawatt, but, like many developing countries, they also do efficiency. As here. Buses can wait until they are full before they leave the station, and large loads are carried by motorbike engine, or even pedal power along the flat. It's also common to see three on a scooter – better mileage than a Prius by far.

Hard seat carriages are noisy, a little smoky and smelly. But there are cultural upsides - apart from costing only half as much (around 20 quid for this journey half-way across the country) in a hard seat you get those invaluable 'real China experiences'. As in the near equivalent platskartny class in Russia, families, students and factory workers are those you meet in a hard seat carriage. The attendants sweep the sunflower husks (and worse) from the aisles with dinky bamboo brooms – not everything is made of plastic here!

Doing a hard seat for 28 hours is a little gruelling, I admit. Speeding through a firework-dotted Hunan in the dark while half asleep is surreal. The guys in the seats next me didn't give up in their efforts to teach me mandarin by force of repetition of incomprehensibly long and rapid phrases at 4am.

Reaching mountain-studded, magical Yangshuo soon soothed the crook in the neck. Cue six weeks of volunteering at a college, doing some climate change lobbying, and general outdoor shenanigans. When it came to the sad time of leaving Yangshuo for Kunming. I  figured I'd try to break the upcoming long journey at Nanning, which would also give me the chance to travel the most scenic stretch of railway in the daylight, but alas no tickets were available. Another overnight 'hard seat' for me...

I expected a repeat of my previous testing journey, but an inflatable travel pillow and more understanding travel partners did the trick. When I wasn't sleeping, Daisy shared fruit with me and the two girls opposite giggled furiously whenever I talked to them in pidgin Mandarin. Some didn't sleep though - the jovial design students returning to Kunming seemed to play cards furiously the whole 18 hours. There sure is a lot of ways to live, a lot of ways to move.

CO2 Emissions - Shanghai to Kunming via Yangshuo

(I'm adjusting Defra's Emission Factors by factors relevant to China. According to the US Department of Energy, China's electricity generation creates 1.7 times as much CO2 per kilowatt than the UK's. On the other hand, I figure the trains carry around 25 per cent more people in comparable carriages)  

Mode Journey Emissions calcs Total emissions
Diesel train Shanghai - Guilin 1600 km  x 60g CO2 per passenger kilometre 96 kg CO2
Coach Guilin - Yangshuo 65km x 29g CO2/pkm 2 kg CO2
Coach Yangshuo - Guilin 65km x 29gCO2/pkm 2 kg CO2
Diesel train
Guilin - Nanning 412km x 60g CO2/pkm 25 kg CO2
Electric train
Nanning to Kunming 755km x 71g CO2/pkm 54 kg CO2
  TOTAL 2897 km 179 kg CO2

Equivalent emissions if I had flown direct:

2074km + 9 per cent routing addition x 98g ppkm (short haul) x 2.5 (RFI) = 553 kg CO2 (figures are estimates).


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