Speeds of hundreds of kilometres an hour now common on rail network.

I caught the train from Swanson to Britomart the other day, feeling smugly superior to the thousands of commuters crawling along the Northwestern Motorway into central Auckland. It wasn't a particularly fast trip - the 27km took more than 50min at an average speed of about 30km/h.

Still, in a city where rail plays second fiddle to roads, and for someone who usually gets around on two wheels (with a motor), it was a novelty. It's clearly nothing new for lots of others, though - from about Mt Albert on there weren't enough seats to go around.

With mayor Len Brown intent on laying more tracks around the city - a batty idea, according to backers of personal rapid transit, or PRT (see the August 9 and October 25 columns) - my ears pricked up at reports of China's high-speed rail progress.

If you've ever wondered where the spoils from China's booming economy end up, high-speed rail is one of the big-ticket items it is spending on. Space is another, but that's a different story.

What got my attention was a story about a speed record set by a train on a new line between Beijing and Shanghai. The state Xinhua News Agency reported that the unmodified commercial train did 486km/h on a section of the as-yet-unopened 1300km track.

Fast, indeed, yet a modified French train apparently hit 574.8km/h in 2007, and a Japanese one reached 581km/h in 2003.

China is spending money hand over fist on high-speed rail. The Beijing-Shanghai line, which is still a year away from opening, is reportedly costing US$32.5 billion ($43.2 billion). By 2012 the country will have a 13,000km network of high-speed tracks, and there will be 3000km more by 2020.

According to an August Time magazine story, the country will have 100,000km of rail tracks by the end of this year, having spent US$120 billion, with plans to spend a further US$700 billion over the next decade.

So fast are its high-speed services, says the Economist, that airlines are feeling the pinch. When the year-old high-speed 1000km Guangzhou-Wuhan service was launched, China Southern Airlines responded by adding flights and cutting prices, but it is now reportedly bundling air and train tickets - round one to rail, as the Economist put it.

The technology sending these trains hurtling across the countryside is not particularly exotic.

China has just a short stretch - the 30.5km from Shanghai's Longyang Rd Metro Station to the city's Pudong International Airport - of maglev (magnetic levitation) track.

The Japanese speed record of 581km/h was on a maglev track. Instead of wheels, magnets lift and propel a maglev train, making them potentially faster and smoother than conventional trains.

The rest of China's high-speed services run on tracks superficially similar to the Swanson to Britomart route, but with some key differences.

The rails are welded, rather than bolted together, eliminating the clickety-clack of New Zealand train travel; and instead of being laid over sleepers in a bed of ballast, high-speed tracks tend to be fixed to slabs of concrete.

There are another couple of big differences. New Zealand tracks, at 1067mm wide, are 368mm narrower, making them less suitable for fast trains, and electricity, that amazingly efficient, quiet and clean motive power, is only beginning to be installed in Auckland.

The astonishing thing about high-speed rail is that trains first exceeded 200km/h in the 1930s. Japan was first to begin scheduled high-speed services, in time for the 1964 Olympics; from the 1970s they spread through Italy, Germany, France, Britain and Spain. The United States, home of the gas-guzzling car, has none, but moneybags across the Tasman is investigating introducing high-speed rail on the country's east coast.

By next July, Australia's Department of Infrastructure and Transport wants to know what would be required for a viable network, including a route and cost.

What about us? Ralph Sims, who heads Massey University's centre for energy research, doesn't think we have the population to support high-speed rail investment. Not that he isn't a fan of fast trains - he lived in Paris for four years and was a frequent traveller on France's high-speed trains.

"I would walk to the station and board a train for Amsterdam or Geneva or London and be there two or three hours later." It beats the hassle of airline security and boarding formalities, Sims says.

China hasn't always had a world-beating rail system. In 1993 the average speed on its network was 48km/h, rising to 70km/h in 2007.

The average for the trip from Wuhan in central China to Guangzhou in the south is 313 km/h. And the Shanghai maglev train, which gets up to 431km/h on its airport-city route, takes about 7min to cover the 30.5km distance.

A target to aim for on the Swanson-Britomart run, perhaps?

Faster by rail

Non-stop trains between Wuhan and Guangzhou take less than three hours to cover 922km - about the same as the distance from Auckland to Wanganui, and back again.

Anthony Doesburg is an Auckland technology journalist