Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines

CHINA: Trains on a Dubious Fast Track

Antoaneta Becker

BEIJING, Jun 16 2011 (IPS) - The novelty of the super-fast ride on China’s bullet train never seems to wear off. On board of the inter-city train connecting the capital with the port city of Tianjin 117 km east you can buy an arm-long model of China’s prestige train and more than two years since its launch there are still many enthusiastic takers.

The changing speed of the train displayed on an electronic screen in the coach still elicits exciting shrieks from those first-time travellers as it reaches and hovers around 330 km/h.

“People said it was not possible for such fast trains to be put into mass production and use. But China is proving them wrong,” says Miao Li, a business women from Tianjin bound for a shopping trip in the capital. The bullet train has reduced travel time from 70 to 30 minutes.

Later this month China is to launch its much-hyped high-speed railway line between Beijing and Shanghai. With a total length of 1,318 km and at a price tag of 34 billion dollars, this will be the longest and most expensive high-speed rail connection in the world, which will almost halve the travel time between China’s two metropolises from ten hours to about five hours.

“In just a few years China has built more high-speed railways than the rest of the world combined has built over half-a-century,” the liberal Southern Weekend paper noted proudly recently. “For a nation whose modern history started with the railways and went through decades of humiliation (at foreign hands), this is a praiseworthy turn of events.”

But there is a snag. Recent high-profile corruption scandals in the industry have thrown unflattering light on piles of debts accumulated by what is described here as China’s “high-speed rail leap forward”. Just as Beijing is preparing an ambitious expansion overseas cautionary tales of rail boom and boost are being heard.

“The expansion of China’s high-speed railway has been funded by state banks, which essentially means Chinese citizens’ hard-earned savings,” says Li Hongchang, a transportation researcher at Beijing Jiaotong University. “If the bubble bursts there will be an enormous social cost.”

China began construction of its high-speed rail network in 2005. By the end of 2010 it had more than 8,000 km of high-speed track and declared plans to double it by 2015. It has aimed to rival the fastest trains of high-speed rail majors like Alstom SA and Siemens AG, setting a goal of more than 500 km/h.

The breakneck expansion of domestic public infrastructure is merely the beginning of publicly declared ambitions for expansion overseas. China’s cut-price bullet trains are the country’s hot latest export and Chinese train makers have begun lobbying governments all over the world to supply the goods.

In South Africa the China Railway Group is proposing to build a 30 billion dollar high-speed railway project between Johannesburg and the eastern port city of Durban. In the UK Chinese diplomats have launched a charm offensive to supply rolling stock for a new high-speed line between London and Birmingham as well as bidding to land the 1 billion pound train order for London’s commuter and suburban Crossrail.

In Saudi Arabia China Railway Engineering is already building a 350 km/h high-speed system linking Mecca and Medina through Jeddah.

More importantly, China’s ambitions to expand its high-speed rail network internationally are part of a broader plan to gain access to valuable natural resources. Adding infrastructure capacity in return for a share of the country’s energy and mineral resources is already a pattern of Chinese overseas investment across the globe.

Beijing has plans to construct high-speed rail lines through Asia and Eastern Europe linking to the existing infrastructure in the European Union as well as building additional lines into Southeast Asia via Singapore. Negotiations are afoot with some 17 nations with Beijing providing financing for the project and partnering nations expected to deliver natural resources to China.

The sheer scale of infrastructure spending has provided ample opportunity for graft. The railway expansion programme suffered a setback in February when the head of the railway ministry Liu Zhijun was removed from his post on suspicion of a “serious breach of discipline” after spearheading the network expansion for nearly eight years.

Chinese newspapers are talking about the “rule of Liu” era when safety on trains was sacrificed in order to achieve higher speed limits and construction was rushed through.

Even the short-track high-speed railway between Beijing and neighbouring Tianjin regarded as the prototype of all consequent lines is deeply in debt. Services are running full but since the opening in 2008 the line has accumulated losses of 700 million yuan (109 million dollars).

The new Hexie, or Harmony, bullet train from Beijing to Shanghai expected to launch at the end of June has been criticised as a “train for aristocrats” with prices costing roughly three times as much as conventional trains. A coach class ticket will cost 555 yuan (86 dollars) and a premium class ticket up to 1,750 yuan (273 dollars).

Railways Ministry officials have switched into damage repair mode, cutting the maximum speed of the Hexie train from planned 350 km/h to 300 km/h and lowering ticket prices to affordable levels. But they have refuted reports that Beijing was planning an overhaul in the expansion programme and has axed 200 billion yuan in high-speed rail investment this year.

“China is not applying the brake to its high-speed network development,” Wang Yongping, a spokesperson to the ministry told the Beijing Times last week.

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