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Bengbu: Rail renaissance set to bring new glory

(China Daily)
Updated: 2011-07-01 13:21
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It was a tiny village of mostly fishermen on the banks of the Huaihe River in Anhui. And exactly 100 years ago in 1911, Bengbu was put on the map when the railway connected Shanghai and Beijing for the first time, passing through the little town.

Bengbu flourished as a transport hub along the route and quickly grew to become one of Anhui's top cities in its heyday in the 1980s.

But, as the web of cross-country freeways spread and air travel became more popular, Bengbu's fortunes slipped, and its importance waned.

The Beijing-Shanghai High-speed Rail has once again revived its fortunes, and the city is perking up to meet the new challenges.

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Even before actual construction of the new train station began, the Bengbu Investment Group assigned to the design project realized the bullet trains would bring a spectrum of opportunities. They boldly proposed a much larger station than was planned.

From the original 8,000 square meters projected in 2006, the new train station is now 20,000 sqm, thanks to lobbying by the Group, with the cooperation of the city's reform and development commission.

"The station is what visitors will see as their first impression," Tao Zhigang, head of the Bengbu Investment Group, said.

Hundreds had competed to design the new station, and finally, a plan from the University of Southern California was chosen, and the winning theme projects the image of Bengbu as a "pearl upon the Huaihe River".

An ambitious 9.27-sq-km "high-speed railway station district" has been planned around the new station, although most of it is still rural countryside at the moment.

"We intend to attract international investment to the area," said Tao. "For years, Bengbu has suffered being branded an underdeveloped city in Anhui. This is a chance, and to that end, we are building a comprehensive infrastructure so we can better attract visitors and investments."

Real estate developers were among the first to realize the arrival of the high-speed trains will quickly translate into profit, and many, such as the Greenland Real Estate Group, marked out parcels as early as 2007.

Dragon Lake Spring, a residential estate less than 1,600 m from the new station, was marketed as part of a "college town" where the university campuses in Bengbu would be built.

"Then, the average price was about 2,000 yuan per square meter," said Wu Licai, from the real estate company. "That was because the supporting facilities were still immature, with only one bus route and no businesses serving the community."

That scenario has changed, and although the new trains have only just started running, property prices here have already more than doubled to 5,000 yuan per square meter.

Wu had been fielding enquiries from as far away as Hangzhou in Zhejiang province.

About 20 percent of queries come from those working in cities like Wuhan or Shanghai who are thinking of buying a house here for investment or as homes for their retired parents.

For people living along the railway line, the new trains mean fresh job opportunities.

Liu Xiaodong, a 46-year-old villager living near Dingyuan, Bengbu's auxiliary junction, was a migrant worker in Shanghai. He is now finally home after six years away.

"I could not be with my children often for many years because my wife and I needed to earn a living in the big cities," Liu said. For him, the high-speed train line presented a chance to work at home and be with family.

Two months ago, Liu found out from a neighbor that the railway was recruiting and he hurried to apply.

He is now employed as a security guard along the line, one of many that the high-speed rail deploys at every kilometer along the 1,318-km Beijing-Shanghai track.

Liu's main responsibility is to keep people safely away from the lines and the high-speed trains. He works eight hours every day, sharing the job with two others, on three shifts. He started his shifts right after undergoing railway security training for two weeks in Shanghai.

"The railway needs to be under supervision round the clock as the high-speed trains cannot afford any mistakes," he proudly declared. "Any carelessness could lead to tragedy."

For some, it is deja vu.

In June, Bengbu organized a series of events celebrating its renaissance, and many celebrities were invited. Among them was Jiang Wenli, an actress who grew up in Bengbu.

"My family depended on the Bengbu railway," Jiang told China Daily at one event.

"Both my parents worked with the Shanghai railway bureau and they were later transferred to Bengbu.

"Bengbu has always been part of my childhood memory, with the roaring of the passing trains and the rattling glasses. These images cannot be replaced no matter how far I go away."

Jiang has her own aspirations for her hometown.

"I hope it never loses its feature as a city intricately bound to the railways, and that future generations will always have a chance to understand more of Bengbu's history."

And sure enough, history is already in the making, although the trains that roar past today no longer rattle and shake as much as they did in Jiang's childhood.