It is less so for journeys between commuter towns, during which trains only briefly accelerate to top speeds. For longer journeys serving sparse populations—a description that fits many of the lines in western and northern China—high-speed rail is prohibitively expensive.

The overall bill is already high. China Railway Corporation, the state-owned operator of the train system, has debts of more than 4trn yuan, equal to about 6% of GDP. Strains were evident last year when China Railway Materials, an equipment-maker, was forced to restructure part of its debts. Six lines have started to make operating profits (ie, not counting construction costs), with the Beijing-Shanghai link the world’s most profitable bullet train, pulling in 6.6bn yuan last year. But in less populated areas, they are making big losses. A state-run magazine said the line between Guangzhou and the province of Guizhou owes 3bn yuan per year in interest payments—three times more than it makes from ticket sales.

Xi makes the trains run on time

Many had thought China would rein in its ambitions after the fall of Liu Zhijun, a railway minister who was once revered as the father of the bullet-train system. In 2011 he was removed for corruption. Shortly after, a high-speed rail crash caused by a signalling failure killed 40 people. The mighty railway ministry was disbanded and folded into the transport ministry. China slowed its fastest trains down from a world-beating 350kph to a safer 300kph. The bullet trains have run with few glitches since the tragic crash.

But the network expansion now under way is even bolder than Mr Liu had envisaged. China has a four-by-four grid at present: four big north-south and east-west lines. Its new plan is to construct an eight-by-eight grid by 2035. The ultimate goal is to have 45,000km of high-speed track. Zhao Jian of Beijing Jiaotong University, who has long criticised the high-speed push, reckons that only 5,000km of this will be in areas with enough people to justify the cost. “With each new line, the losses will get bigger,” he says.

Making matters worse, China has often placed railway stations far from city centres. Bigger cities should eventually grow around their stations, but suburban locations will not produce the same economic dividends as central locations. In smaller cities, prospects are even bleaker. In Xiaogan in Hubei province, the station was built 100km from the city. The decision to base stations so far away reflects the realities of high-speed rail: for trains to run fast, tracks need to be straight. But that limits potential gains from lines as they traverse China. Wang Lan of Tongji University in Shanghai says the government should turn isolated stations into transportation hubs by adding new rail connections to other nearby places. That, though, would be another big expense.

Dangers are all too visible in the city of Suzhou in Anhui province (not to be confused with the successful example of Suzhou in Jiangsu). Its station is 45km from the city centre in the barren landscape where Mr Gu lives in hope. The government thought it would spark development. It paved eight-lane roads to serve a vast industrial park on one side of the station. Investors built clothing, food and pharmaceutical factories. But all are closed, except for a paper mill. Undeterred, the government is building a commercial district on the other side of the station.

Nearby, Mr Gu’s old-age home is off to a good start, with help from a local hospital. Down the road there is a drab collection of stores, restaurants and houses. This was meant to be the kernel of the new railway town: people were resettled here to make way for the tracks. Two older residents say they are sure that better days are just around the corner. They have heard that the government will move in 100,000 people from a part of western China plagued by landslides. Suzhou will provide the new arrivals with a place to live and they, in turn, will provide the town with the population it needs to thrive. But it is impossible to confirm the rumour—one more article of hope in what China likes to call its “high-speed rail dream”.