Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Economy & Trade, Headlines, Population

CHINA: Massive Rail Network to Cross Continents

Mitch Moxley

BEIJING, Sep 30 2010 (IPS) - As recently as the mid-1980s, China relied on steam-powered relics to transport citizens and goods around its vast territory. Today, the country is home to 6,900 kilometres of high-speed passenger train routes in what is the largest rail network in the world – and growing.

China's high-speed rail network is the largest in the world, and is set to more than double by 2020. Credit: Mitch Moxley/IPS

China's high-speed rail network is the largest in the world, and is set to more than double by 2020. Credit: Mitch Moxley/IPS

While the United States’ passenger rail network languishes, China has invested huge sums of money into its railways and plans to add an additional 16,000 km of track by 2020. In 2010, the government spent 80 billion U.S. dollars on rail construction, creating six million jobs. It hopes to not only connect the prosperous coastal cities to the remote west, but also envisions lines beginning in China and stretching across Asia, the Middle East and Europe.

China already has 2,000 km of routes that can run at top speeds of 350 km per hour. A high-speed line that opened in 2009 connects Wuhan, in Hubei province, to Guangzhou, in Guangdong province, over 1,000 km to the south, in just three hours. Passengers can now travel between Beijing and neighboring Tianjin in 30 minutes on a 2.34 billion U.S. dollar line that opened in 2008, and the Shanghai-Wuhan- Chengdu high-speed rail corridor opened at the end of August.

China’s growing rail network “promotes economic development and infrastructure construction and will create more job opportunities,” said Wang Shengwu, president of School of Civil and Safety Engineering at Dalian Jiaotong University. “Investment in railway construction not only improves transportation, but pushes the development of other industries – energy, steel, cement…. For every one yuan invested in railway construction, 5.7 yuan (85 cents) will be added to the GDP.”

China has built its high-speed network on knowledge obtained through joint ventures with Siemens AG, Alstom SA and Japan’s Shinkansen bullet train operators. Its reputation for railway building has grown internationally and the country’s railway companies are fighting for a part of a global market that is worth about 155 billion dollars a year, according to estimates by Unife, the Association of the European Rail Industry.

Chinese railway companies are currently building high- speed rail networks in Venezuela and Turkey, and will begin construction in Burma soon. In 2009, Saudi Arabia awarded a Chinese company a contract to build a 350 km-per-hour rail link connecting Mecca and Medina.

China’s planned international expansion project will involve 17 nations, a Ministry of Railways official recently told ‘Global Times’, a state-owned newspaper. One route will begin in Kunming, capital of south-west Yunnan province, and run to Singapore. A second route, dubbed ‘the New Silk Road’, will start in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, and connect countries including Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, finishing in Germany, the paper reported.

The governor of California in the United States, Arnold Schwarzenegger, recently scouted China’s high-speed rail network and said he was hoping for “creative financing” from countries – including China – to help lower costs for his state’s proposed high-speed rail network.

“Today what I have seen is very, very impressive. We hope China is part of the bidding process, along with other countries around the world, so that we can build high-speed rail as inexpensively as possible,” Schwarzenegger told reporters after posing for photos in front of a high-speed train in Shanghai in mid-September.

China, along with at least six other countries, has expressed interest in helping California develop its high- speed rail network. Experts say cash-rich China has an advantage because its banks were left relatively unscathed by the financial crisis.

China’s new high-speed rail network does have its critics, however.

Zhao Jian, a professor at Beijing Jiaotong University, said China’s investment in high-speed rail is misguided. He argues that Beijing should focus on expanding and improving its regular passenger and cargo networks, instead of building more super high-speed routes that it does not need.

He says China’s high-speed network targets high-income passengers, which leaves out the vast majority of Chinese who are not able to afford the pricey tickets. China may also lack the technical expertise to maintain its planned network of high-speed rail. “There’s still a considerable gap between China’s railway technologies and the advanced ones in foreign countries,” Zhao told IPS.

“It’s difficult for China’s current railways to meet the development needs of the national economy, so it’s absolutely necessary to expand the network,” he said. “But China has invested too much in the construction of its high- speed rail network, which doesn’t mesh with China’s basic national circumstances and the purpose of its rail network.”

China’s domestic airlines are also concerned that the growing rail network poses a threat to their viability. Some airlines have slashed ticket prices as much as 80 percent between cities that are connected by bullet trains, and in other cases flights have been ceased all together.

But Wang said rail growth is not necessarily a bad thing for the airline industry. He said China’s airlines are also developing quickly, making transportation in the country cheaper and safer.

“They will develop together,” he said. “I think the competition will encourage the two transport services to develop faster and better.

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