Driverless bullet trains started roaring along the 174-kilometer express rail link between Beijing and Zhangjiakou at 350km/h this week in preparation for the Winter Olympics in 2022.

The trains slash the commuting time from the Chinese capital to the trade and transportation hub and ski resort straddling the borders of Beijing, Hebei and Inner Mongolia from three hours to about 45 minutes.

The new trunk route hailed as China’s most advanced high-speed railway will serve as the fastest link between the two cities to ferry athletes, reporters and spectators in February 2022 when Beijing hosts the Winter Olympics.

Starting from Beijing North Station, the link passes beneath the capital’s heavily built-up districts including the campus of the prestigious Tsinghua University through a 6-km tunnel, before wriggling through rugged terrain between Beijing and Hebei as well as Badaling, the most visited section of the Great Wall and an UNESCO World Heritage site, via a 12-km tunnel.

Bridges for the new express rail link between Beijing and Zhangjiakou. Photo: WikiMedia/Charlie Fong

Automated bullet trains travel through rugged mountains and beneath the Great Wall. Photos: Xinhua, Weibo

The railway is an engineering marvel that cuts through a sandwich of seismically active faults with an elevation reaching 3,000 meters. There is a subway-like station to serve the tens of millions of visitors that flock to the Badaling Great Wall each year, which is the world’s deepest underground high-speed rail station, according to the China State Railway Group.

It is worth noting that the old line linking Beijing and Zhangjiakou was China’s first railway built with the nation’s indigenous talent during the late Qing dynasty in 1909, a rail connection that was comprised of four tunnels and more than 100 bridges.

Jeme Tien-Yow, aka Zhan Tianyou, a pioneering, Yale-groomed Chinese railroad engineer, was the chief designer of the project.

While steam-propelled trains needed almost a day to haul people and cargo from Beijing to Zhangjiakou back then, passengers on the sleek, automated trains that ply the new lines more than 100 years later are served by a 5G-based Wi-Fi network and wireless charging for their gadgets.

According to reports, passengers will be able to store their snowboards in dedicated spaces and watch games live on the high-tech “Beijing Winter Olympics Express” in 2022.

Ambient lighting in passenger coaches and wireless charging docks are among the new features of the Fuxing train running between Beijing and Zhangjiakou. Photos: Xinhua

Zhangjiakou’s express rail links to Dalian in northeastern Liaoning province and to Hohhot, the capital of the Inner Mongolia autonomous region, are also up and running.

China continues to charge full speed ahead with its new construction spree and the nation already boasts a sprawling express network of 35,000-km, two-thirds of the world’s total, on which trains travel at no less than 200km/h.

The speed with which China has knitted its high-speed rail network together and churned out locomotives and bullet trains is the major force driving the nation’s breakneck infrastructure development. The nation only started to lay the tracks of its first high-speed railway, between Beijing and Tianjin, in 2005.