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China’s slow trains for the poor

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A villager boards a slow train with a television strapped to his back in 2015. The train connected communities in Sichuan and Yunnan provinces that were not frequently served by China's modernized rail network.

A villager boards a slow train with a television strapped to his back in 2015. The train connected communities in Sichuan and Yunnan provinces that were not frequently served by China's modernized rail network. Qian Haifeng

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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.

One of 81 routes that service remote areas as part of the government’s poverty-alleviation effort. (Charles Zhang/Marketplace)

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.

A passenger on Train 8324 in central Henan province washes her face during the ride into the countryside. (Charles Zhang/Marketplace)

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.

“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.

Retirees Zhou Shichen (left) and Tan Zhaoyin are regular commuters on Train 8324. (Charles Zhang/Marketplace)

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.

Farmers on a slow train that runs between Guizhou and Yunnan provinces in 2014. They try to sell their vegetables from town to town. (Qian Haifeng)

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.

Farmer Wu Song has two grandsons, which he said is a substantial financial pressure on his family. (Charles Zhang/Marketplace)

“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.

Slow trains have hard seats, so when it is not packed, passengers can make themselves more comfortable. (Charles Zhang/Marketplace)

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.

Chang Yuanhong’s son has new clothes to wear, enough food to eat and electricity at home, none of which she had growing up. (Charles Zhang/Marketplace)

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.

Fu Sihu (left) and wife Li Hong are on the way back to their village after seeing a city doctor. The couple do not usually live together because Fu earns more working in bigger cities. (Charles Zhang/Marketplace)

“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.

High-rise condos seem to be popping up all over Gushi County, a result of residents working in bigger cities and sending money back. (Jennifer Pak/Marketplace)
The priciest condos in Gushi County sell for $150,000 or more for a three-bedroom unit. (Charles Zhang/Marketplace)
Average-priced three-bedroom condos in Gushi County sell for at least $77,000. (Jennifer Pak/Marketplace)

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.”

Chang Yuanhong’s son (bottom) plays with another young passenger. He is among the lucky children growing up with both parents present. (Charles Zhang/Marketplace)

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.

Zhao Dahai said the family has had to watch their spending on nonessentials since the pandemic arrived. (Charles Zhang/Marketplace)

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 staff said the carriages used to be bare, but in recent years they were spruced up with matching seat covers and curtains. (Charles Zhang/Marketplace)

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.

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