Train No. 8324 in central Henan province takes three hours to run a 100 mile route. It is one of the slowest and cheapest trains in fast-moving China, meant to service far-flung areas. The train starts from Xinyang, a lively city of 6.5 million permanent residents, which is bigger than the population of Missouri, but tiny by China’s standards.
Xinyang is a city where middle-aged taxi drivers happily crank out Chinese rap songs at top volume with passengers on board and the train station requires facial scanning for entry.
Just before 8 a.m., Train 8324 pulls up in its army green shell with a yellow stripe. A sign on the side of the carriage reads: “Poverty alleviation slow train.” Riding this train costs a fraction of traveling on faster trains because these slow vehicles are government-subsidized.
The Biden administration’s push to upgrade American infrastructure is partly motivated by seeing China’s sleek infrastructure, including bullet trains that go more than 300 kilometers per hour (186 mph). These fast trains have gradually replaced the slower, green-colored trains. The transition has been extensively documented by photographer Qian Haifeng. However, in recent years, the Chinese government has designated 81 routes remaining from the Mao era for the poor. Train 8324 is among them.
Retirees Tan Zhaoyin and Zhou Shichen are frequent riders on the slow train. They were on their way back to their village after minding their grandchildren in Xinyang city.
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“I’m old. The train is comfortable because it goes fast and it’s not a bumpy ride compared to the bus, so I don’t get dizzy,” said Tan, a former teacher.
For an hourlong ride, he and his train companion, Zhou Shichen, pay 4 yuan (60 cents) each.
“Before I knew about this train, we would take the bus, which would cost up to 5 times more,” Zhou said. He is a retired farmer and doesn’t have much of a pension.
Train 8324 passes through sprawling fields growing rice and corn.
Some “poverty alleviation slow trains” have seats removed to allow farmers to carry their goods from town to town. Train 8324 is not one of them.
One farmer on the train, Wu Song, rents out his land, which is nearly the size of an American football field.
But renting the land “doesn’t bring in much money. Every year we get just 3,500 yuan,” Wu said. That equates to about $500.
He was taking the slow train to a contract job in Shangcheng County, which is a two-hour ride away. He would be digging pipeline ditches.
“For every meter I dig, I earn a dollar. The longer I dig, the more I earn,” Wu said, adding that he gets room and board too.
Wu had hit the official men’s retirement age at 60 years old. However, he said he can’t afford to stop working just yet.
“I’ve got two grandsons, and it’s a heavy burden for my son because in order for the grandsons to find wives one day, our family needs to spend at least 1 million yuan on each of them,” Wu said.
That works out to more than $300,000 spent on things like education and buying property. Raising children is expensive, but for Wu, life is better than when he was young and there was not always enough to eat.
In the next passenger carriage, Chang Yuanhong, a mother of two, said she would not go back to those days either. She said she could only afford to wear old clothes when she was growing up.
“There was no electricity in our home until I was 8. We used kerosene lamps. We got our first TV set when I was a teenager. That’s a huge difference from how my kids are growing up — surrounded by electronic devices,” Chang said.
She credits the material improvement in their lives largely to the sacrifices her parents made.
Chang’s mom and dad, along with hundreds of millions of others, left the countryside for higher wages in the cities.
Some of the money they earned flowed back to the countryside. In Gushi County, where Train 8324 terminates, high-rise condos seem to sprout at every street corner.
The costs of housing, education and clothing have brought new pressures for train passengers like stay-at-home mom Li Hong.
“The cost of living in our county is as high as in the city,” Li said.
At the same time, salaries in her hometown are not keeping up with inflation, which pushed her husband, Fu Sihu, to work on construction sites across China.
He has been on the road for most of their 11-year marriage, which has been tiring for him. Plus he misses the camaraderie of his hometown folks.
“All passengers on this train are usually local, so we get to chat with others, unlike on faster, long-distance trains,” Fu said.
Train passengers are often very friendly. Chang, the mother of two, even invited the Marketplace team over for lunch.
“Come to my house to eat!” shouted her 4-year-old son.
Chang was about his age when her parents went off to city factories and left her behind with other family members.
“I’d see my parents once a year during the Lunar New Year if I was lucky. Sometimes they couldn’t buy tickets to return home because there were not enough trains, like now,” Chang said. “Growing up without my parents around, I had low self-esteem.”
To avoid repeating that pattern with her own children, Chang and her husband have settled in Xinyang city, where it costs less to live than in the major cities, but also the salaries are lower.
Their mortgage is being paid by their parents — whom they were on their way to visit.
“I feel sorry that my in-laws are paying for our mortgage, but once we pay off our other debt, then we’ll take over. This is Chinese culture. We can always repay our parents later, but we don’t feel it’s right to be in debt to others,” Chang said.
Her husband, Zhao Dahai, who works in a car shop, said his business hasn’t recovered to pre-COVID-19 pandemic levels.
“Customers don’t want to spend on their cars when they received less income during the pandemic,” Zhao said.
His pay was suspended for two months during the nationwide lockdown last year. He said his family is cutting back on nonessentials, such as travel.
Train 8324 pulled up at the last stop, Gushi County, where Zhao and the family were to spend the weekend with his parents.
His two children rode the slow train for free. The one-way trip for his family of four cost just 21 yuan ($3).
Additional research by Charles Zhang.