New subway eases Beijing travel misery

( AFP ) - A major new subway line in Beijing opened this week as part of China's bid to transform the city into a world-class capital prior to the Olympics and ease the misery of its long-suffering commuters.

"New Beijing, Great Olympics," is one of the host city's Olympic slogans and the ultra-sleek Line No 5 ties in with the government's 40-billion-dollar plan to renew the city's infrastructure in time for the Games.

The 26-kilometre (16-mile) service is aimed at improving Beijing's poor air quality and reducing traffic jams caused by the spiralling number of cars on the city's streets.

"It means we're catching up with Singapore, Hong Kong and places like that," said Yu Xiaobo, a communications student enjoying a smooth ride on the new line that is the first to run north-south through the city.

"For me it means a shorter commute and more time with my family," said Li Xiangxu, a graphic designer who intends to travel each day on the subway to his downtown office from the suburbs.

Above ground, signs of the massive pre-Olympic construction boom are everywhere.

The city-wide makeover includes a billion-dollar spending spree on new Games venues such as the iconic National Stadium, known as the Bird's Nest for its structure of interlocking steel beams.

Other architectural wonders dot the skyline and new residential towers, office blocks, shopping malls, roads and highways are being built at a frantic pace.

But the transport upgrade is also vital in giving the city a new modern feel.

The 1.6-billion-dollar new line, with 23 stations, flat-panel screens and bilingual signs is a world away from line No 1, ordered by revolutionary leader Mao Zedong in the 1960s for military use only.

The east-west line which runs through the core of the city was supplemented by a circle line in 1984.

But the network was never designed to cope with an increasingly affluent population of 15 million people despite a new light-rail link to the northern suburbs and extensions to other lines in recent years.

More government money is being ploughed underground, with another three subway lines to be added to the network by the middle of next year, just in time for the Olympic opening ceremony on August 8.

A light-rail will also connect downtown Beijing the city's revamped and expanded airport, with that service slated to begin in June next year.

Officials believe a better public transport network will persuade more Beijingers to abandon their cars.

"It is of great significance for the city to ease traffic pressure, provide easier transport for the public ... speed up construction of Olympic infrastructure and ensure a high-level Olympic Games," said Liu Qi, Beijing's Communist Party chief and head of the Olympic organising committee.

There are already well over three million cars in Beijing, and that number is growing by more than 1,000 a day.

With pollution a central issue ahead of the Olympics, the city banned over one million cars from the roads during a four-day test run in August to determine whether a similar step would improve air quality during the Games.

The government hailed the test as a success and is expected to repeat the drill during the Games.

While some residents had complained that the car ban was just a temporary fix, commuters appeared happy with the new subway.

"The leadership has done well for the people by building this new line because we really needed it. It's got Chinese characteristics too," said pensioner Hu Yinhua, taking photographs of one new station with red pillars in imperial style and marble stairways.

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