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ONBOARD THE BEIJING-SHANGHAI EXPRESS (Reuters) - With its fully reclining airline-style business class seats, a strict no-smoking policy and designed top speed of 350 km (220 miles) per hour, the new Beijing-Shanghai express embodies China's race to the future.
The new line's launch is coordinated with the 90th anniversary of the ruling Communist Party to highlight the "scientific development" slogan dear to the heart of Chinese president and party secretary Hu Jintao.
It is the latest and most feted portion of a network the government hopes will stretch 45,000 km (27,960 miles) by the end of 2015.
"This is the pride of China and the Chinese people," Ministry of Railways chief engineer He Huawu told reporters at the Beijing South Station before a trial run on Monday.
"It took just 39 months to build such a high-standard and world-renowned high-speed rail line, which is a gift for the 90th anniversary of the Party."
The sleek white and blue train -- dubbed "Harmony" after President Hu's "harmonious society" slogan -- zips along its elevated track at 300 km (185 miles) per hour, bypassing flat fields and rubble-strewn villages. It cuts travel time on the 1,318-kilometre (820-mile) route to under five hours.
It would go faster but for safety concerns, after revelations of corruption led to the downfall of the rail minister earlier this year.
The line is designed to carry 80 million passengers a year, providing heady competition for the airlines on a route notorious for delays.
For 1,750 yuan ($270), business class travelers are waited on by uniformed stewardesses.
It is also a non-smoking ride.
"That's hard for some passengers. Even though we only stop for one minute in Nanjing they race out to the platform and puff as fast as they can," said Wang Zongyue, who handles safety culture training for the new line.
China's ambitious high-speed rail program is designed partly to shift passenger traffic off existing tracks, allowing for faster and cheaper transport of coal and grains.
The investment comes none too soon for the creaking freight rail system, which proved a major bottleneck as China's economy took off over the past decade.
But building a top-of-the line passenger system is controversial. Critics say affordable seats are needed more than luxury commuter lines.
Regular trains are so crowded during peak times that passengers stand or sleep in the aisles or even bathrooms, and poorer Chinese still queue for hours or even days to get tickets.
The heavily indebted ministry may have to cut back on some plans, analysts say.
"They might cut some of the far west lines and inter-city lines, some of the more ambitious plans don't make much sense," said Jerry Lou, chief strategy officer for Morgan Stanley Huaxin Securities.
He believes the new lines will spur demand for everything from real estate to instant noodles.
But Lou shrugged off allegations that the line, at a cost of 220.9 billion yuan, amounts to a high-speed vanity project.
"If you look back in history, very few high-profile projects actually did make money in the beginning ... They (the government) are certainly not naive about the high-speed rail being immediately profitable."
Additional reporting by Michael Martina; Editing by Ben Blanchard and Sugita Katyal