China gets its rail network up to speed

A China Railways CRH3 high-speed train parked in Beijing South station. photograph: bloomberg

A China Railways CRH3 high-speed train parked in Beijing South station. photograph: bloomberg


Not only does China’s new high-speed rail system work, it is proving to be financially viable too

Picture yourself getting into a gleaming bullet train in Beijing and then pitching up at Dublin’s Connolly Station several days later, having traversed central Asia and the European mainland by high-speed rail. This is a real possibility by 2025, if China’s ambitions to build an iron silk road using its high-speed rail technology.

Closer to home, imagine being able to travel by train from Cork to Dublin in just 40 minutes. On a much larger scale, the equivalent journey across the north-south divide in China is Beijing to Guangzhou, a 2,298km journey that used to take 22 hours, but now takes just eight hours since the opening in December of the high-speed line between the capital and the southern commercial hub.

In terms of showcasing China’s technological innovations, and showing how it has become so much more than just a low-cost manufacturer, the high-speed rail project is up there with the space programme and the Beijing Olympics.

Wang Hui, deputy dean of the School of Economics and Management at the Shijiazhuang Tiedao University in Hebei, outlined the opportunities the new route will bring.

“The Beijing-Guangzhou high-speed railway connects the economic region around Beijing with the Pearl River Delta. Considering the population and levels of development of the two economic zones, they are undoubtedly important engines for China’s economy, therefore improving the transport system will definitely increase exchanges between the two in terms of investment, talent and information,” he said.

Another showcase route is the Beijing to Shanghai route, which covers 1,318km and runs 90 pairs of trains daily, with the trip taking four hours and 48 minutes.

China started its high-speed rail network programme in 2007, but already it is the biggest in the world, with 9,356km of high-speed railways.

The web of bullet train lines will reach 18,000km by 2015, Sheng Guangzu, minister of railways, told a recent rail conference. That means more than 8,000km of newly built stock will be put into service within three years.

The plan is to expand this to 50,000km by 2020, with four main lines running north and south, and another four east and west. The high-speed train pulls in to vast, customised stations, with terrific facilities.

At times, it makes Irish and British rail networks look as modern as Thomas the Tank Engine.

This is still a developing country, and there are complaints that the prices are too high. The top price for a ticket from Beijing to Guangzhou is more than 2,000 yuan (€235), which is about the same price as a flight.

It is the emerging middle class and wealthy who take the train. Even though the Guangzhou to Beijing journey takes eight hours, versus around three hours flying, many travellers like the fact that there are fewer interruptions, the view is pretty, you can walk around at leisure and it is easier to work – even if internet access seems a bit patchy and not all the seats had power-points.

Investment in the high-speed rail network was a big part of China’s infrastructure spending programme in 2008/2009, when Beijing pushed out a four trillion yuan (€490 billion) stimulus to fight the financial crisis.

The rail ministry plans to invest 650 billion yuan (€76 billion) in railway infrastructure, aiming to have 5,200 kilometres of new railways opened this year.

Record speed

During the development of the project, a train on the Beijing-Shanghai route hit a record speed of 486km/h during a test run, which the Xinhua news agency said was the fastest speed recorded by an unmodified conventional commercial train.

There are real time savings with the high-speed train.

The train journey from Shanghai to Beijing used to take 10 hours, but by bullet train our crossing through eastern China takes just four hours and 48 minutes.

Once difficult-to-reach cities, with giant populations, are suddenly become accessible and the economic impact will be immense.

It takes in major cities like Shijiazhuang, Wuhan and Changsha, and is expected to bring economic revival there too, including the usual direct economic benefits, such as time-savings for travellers, cost savings for operators, and reductions in aspects like air pollution, noise, and accidents, the World Bank has urged China to look too at the wider economic benefits of the system.

“Look at the case of Zhengzhou on the Beijing to Guangzhou line . . . in the past, in a three-hour conventional train journey on this line, about three million people from Anyang, Xinxiang and Handan can reach Zhengzhou.

Today, with the opening of the new high-speed line, this number will surge to 28 million people from eight cities,” said Gerald Ollivier, the World Bank’s senior transport specialist.

“These cities will start to work more closely together as a return trip within a day will be within reach. The impact in terms of economic exchanges, accessibility, and productivity gains are expected to be significant, and extend beyond traditional transport savings.

“The scale and scope of the Chinese high-speed rail programme offer a unique opportunity to try to measure such impacts,” said Ollivier.

Success at home means the technology can be sold abroad. China has already built high-speed rail networks in foreign countries such as Turkey and Venezuela, and has ambitions farther afield, including possibly California.

If the government can overcome all the red tape of crossing so many lands, the rail route could eventually link Shanghai to Singapore via Rangoon, or Kunming in southwestern Yunnan province to New Delhi, Lahore and on to Tehran.

While the high-speed train is technically Chinese, some of the world’s biggest engineering companies point out that China had a lot of help.

During the construction of the network, China relied on technology transfers from a number of foreign companies, including France’s Alstom, Germany’s Siemens and Japan’s Kawasaki Heavy Industries, which constructed the Shinkansen, Japan’s bullet train.

Kawasaki has accused the Chinese of copying their ideas, but China’s vice-minister of science and technology Cao Jianlin dismissed any accusations of intellectual property rights theft.

Platform for innovation

Cao says it had taken years of development by Chinese engineers to come up with the technology and that the high-speed rail technology will provide a platform for more innovation.

The high-speed rail industry “will further research patent strategy and the global IPR [intellectual property rights] situation to better understand the laws and policies of countries they export to”.

The reputation of the high-speed rail network seems to have largely recovered from the collision in Wenzhou in July 2011 that killed 40 people. The accident was China’s worst rail disaster since 2008 and caused widespread public criticism, focused on the government, saying the rail authorities were rushing to expand the network without taking individual public safety into account.

Since the accident, the train travels at a maximum speed of 300km/h, down from the original average speed of 329 km/h, as the trains were made to go slower following the Wenzhou crash.

The project has also wrestled with corruption issues. The former railway minister, Liu Zhijun, was dismissed in 2011 after a corruption probe revealed a web of graft and sexual peccadilloes.

Stories abound of substandard building practices leading to delays in construction as sections of track are taken down and reinstalled.

National fund

With construction of the network intensifying, the government is considering a national fund to encourage private capital to invest in China’s high-speed railway development and help ease the increasing financial burden stemming from intensified high-speed rail construction Wang Mengshu, a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, reckons about 600 billion yuan (€70.6 billion) will be needed every year for the next three years to support the extension of the network.

“Considering the huge debt burden, the financial pressure weighing on the ministry will be very heavy,” Wang said.

The rail ministry will diversify financing channels by encouraging local governments, enterprises and the private sector to participate in railway construction.

According to a report late last year, four of the country’s high-speed rail lines achieved break-even since the bullet trains started running full-speed, intercity services – with ticket revenues matching costs, including debt payments – on several routes, including Beijing to Tianjin, Shanghai to Nanjing, Beijing to Shanghai and Shanghai to Hangzhou lines.

Not only does the high-speed rail system work, it’s financially workable too, something that will give European governments pause for thought.

Long road thousands and thousands of kilometres to go

Even though the high-speed network programme was begun in 2007, it is already the biggest in the world, with 9,356km of high-speed railways.

By the end of last year, China’s high-speed railway network was the longest in the world – at 9,356km – while its total railway network was the second longest in the world at 98,000km.

China’s railway carried 1.9 billion passengers last year, which was an increase of 4.8 per cent on the previous year, and 3.9 billion tons of cargo, which was about the same as had been carried the previous year.

Key projects last year included the Harbin-Dalian high-speed railway, which is the world’s first high-speed rail in areas with extremely low temperatures.

The Beijing-Guangzhou high-speed railway is the world’s longest high-speed rail with 35 stations in major Chinese cities along the way.

According to the 12th Five-Year Plan, China will spend about 650 billion yuan (€76.6 billion) on fixed assets investment this year, including 520 billion yuan (€61.3 billion) in infrastructure facilities and construction of more than 5,200 kilometres of railways.

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