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High-speed rail: China’s new silk road’

Few things demonstrate better that something very big is happening in China than its rapidly emerging high-speed rail network.

By Roger Irvine*.

From having no dedicated high-speed track in operation just over two years ago China will, two years from now, have built a staggering 13,000km of track.

This is perhaps the most spectacular example of China’s constant capacity to surprise with the rapid pace and seemingly unstoppable momentum of its economic growth.

But, in the same way that important questions can be raised about the sustainability of China’s overall growth, similar questions can be asked about the viability of its ambitious and impressive experiment with high-speed rail.

The extent of China’s high-speed rail capability is still little appreciated outside China, mainly due to its very recent construction but it did not appear suddenly or without considerable preparation.

China has long had an interest in high-speed rail, dating from the early 1990s when the State Council commissioned a feasibility study. But China’s true entry into the high-speed era did not begin until more than 10 later, with publication of the 2004-2020 Mid and Long-Term Railway Development Plan.

By the end of 2007, over 500 fast trains were in operation, though these shared track with freight services. The first dedicated high-speed line for passengers opened between Beijing and Tianjin just before for the August 2008 Olympics.

Having used this line several times, I can testify to its smooth and whisper-quiet operation at speeds up to 350 km/h. It covers the 120km distance in half an hour (less than many subway commutes in Beijing) and connects seamlessly to the Beijing subway at the stunning new Beijing South railway station.

Turning point
2008 was a turning point for China’s high-speed rail. When the global financial crisis hit, China looked for areas where it could rapidly increase public investment to re-stimulate growth. Rail construction was seen as an obvious candidate. China’s total fiscal stimulus package was almost US$600bn, of which up to 60% was spent on transport, the bulk of it on rail.

China’s likely total investment in high-speed rail to 2020 had been estimated at about US$300bn,but recent reports indicate that over US$600bn will be spent on rail construction during the 2011-2015 Five Year Plan alone.

Given this very high spending, the map of China’s rail network looks like the work of a very busy spider. By the end of 2009, the total length of the network had grown to 86,000km, overtaking Russia and second only to the US.

In April 2010, China had about 3300km of high-speed line, while Japan was its nearest rival with about 2200km. By September, the Ministry of Railways of the People’s Republic of China announced that the length of high-speed track had already doubled to over 7000km.

Future targets are even more striking. The original plan envisaged a 12,000km high-speed passenger network by 2020 (supplemented by 20,000km of mixed traffic lines capable of 200-250 km/h).

In March 2010 the Ministry made the remarkable announcement that it aimed to complete 13,000km of passenger-dedicated high-speed lines by 2012. Not only would this exceed the original 2020 target, but it would be more than the rest of the world combined.

The Ministry said by 2020 there would be at least 16,000km of passenger-dedicated high-speed rail, enough to stretch from Beijing to London and back.

The total rail network by 2020 would be 120,000km (80% of it electrified) some observers are already speculating that a network of around 150,000km or more is likely by then.

John Scales, transport specialist with the World Bank in Beijing, described China’s current effort as the biggest rail expansion the world has ever seen.

The Beijing-Tianjian high-speed line was quickly followed by several others, but more recent headlines were dominated by the opening in December 2009 of the Guangzhou to Wuhan line connecting south and central China in just three hours.

Another new line between Beijing and Shanghai, which began construction in 2008, is expected to open this year with a trip time of four or five hours. At US$33bn, it is described as the most expensive engineering project in China’s history, eclipsing even the Three Gorges Dam.

Current plans
China’s current planning for its high-speed network envisions a 12,000km grid of four north-south and four east-west lines, criss-crossing the country.

The potential shrinking of distance for many Chinese commuters is illustrated by the claim that travel time from Beijing to Hong Kong will soon be reduced to less than eight hours to most other major cities it will be less than two to four hours. Few provincial capital cities would be more than eight hours apart.

Major cities within the three main urban agglomerations of Beijing-Tianjin, the Yangzi River Delta and the Pearl River Delta will be connected by inter-city lines, which will in turn connect within the largest cities to a new proliferation of suburban subway networks.

Nor is the relatively underdeveloped western region being neglected. An additional 20,000km of rail is planned. In 2009, work began on a 1776km high-speed line traversing the western region from Lanzhou to Urumqi, which will be the highest high-speed railway in the world.

Supporting infrastructure
High-speed trains require track that is as straight as feasible and highly stable. A high proportion of that track is elevated on giant concrete pillars, which have become a part of China’s modern landscape almost as ubiquitous as its new ‘national bird’ – the mechanical crane. They are often several tens of metres high, sweeping across whatever topography they encounter this goes some way towards explaining why China’s cement production is many times that of any other country in the world.

Wherever mountains present an obstacle, tunneling is employed, and wherever rivers are encountered huge bridges are constructed.

The Guangzhou-Wuhan line reportedly has 226 tunnels with a combined length of 177km, and 684 bridges with a combined length of 468km.

The new double-tracked 27.8km tunnel through the Taihang mountain range now connects previously isolated Shanxi province with its populous eastern neighbours.

Major bridges for the new high-speed network include the 4.6km Tianxingzhou bridge across the Yangzi River at Wuhan, which is claimed to be the biggest and widest railway-highway bridge in the world, and the 1.6km Dashengguan bridge across the Yangzi at Nanjing, which is described as the world’s first six-lane railway bridge. The Zhengzhou-Xian line includes a section of almost 80km of elevated track, said to be the world’s longest bridge.

Another massive undertaking is the construction of over 30 new and ultra-modern main railway stations, with a combined floor space approaching 5 million sqm. These include spectacular new structures in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Wuhan, Changsha, Xian, Tianjin, Nanjing, Fuzhou, Xiamen and elsewhere, which make many of China’s airports look modest by comparison.

Then there are the trains themselves. As in many other sectors, China has been able to exploit the leverage resulting from the eagerness of foreign companies to enter its huge and lucrative market to persuade them, after considerable resistance, to transfer technology as well as manufacturing capability.

Beginning about 2004, China licensed technology and equipment from all four major international train manufacturers. The Ministry of Railways has denied China forced foreign companies to transfer technology and says China contributed by innovating and improving these technologies.

Trains developed in China are now breaking rail speed records. Non-stop commercial trains between Guangzhou and Wuhan average 313 km/h reportedly well in excess of the world’s previous fastest commercial train, France’s TGV.

A new generation train is being deployed that will be capable of running at up to 380 km/h on the Beijing-Shanghai line. The Ministry of Railways has revealed it is developing technology to permit average operational speeds of 400 to 500 km/h, and that it has begun development of new &quotsuper-speed&quot railway technology to enable average speeds over 500 km/h.

This would shatter previous conceptions of the limits of high-speed rail.

Fears of foreign companies that China will compete with them in international markets are well-founded.

China has already declared its intention to export its rail technology and expertise and it seems likely to be very competitive. Reportedly it has already begun building high-speed rail routes in Turkey, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia.

Negotiations with the US, Russia, India, Brazil and South Africa are also reported. China has recently signed a framework agreement with General Electric for a joint venture to manufacture high-speed trains in the US.

The Ministry’s chief planner, Zheng Jian, asserts China has advantages in two areas: &quotWe have mastered a full set of technologies, and have the advantage in construction time and cost&quot.

This claim has been corroborated by John Scales at the World Bank, who has observed: &quotThese guys are engineering driven – they know how to build fast, build cheaply and do a good job&quot, Costs per kilometre of high-speed rail construction in China, and of train manufacturing, are much lower than elsewhere&quot.

Even more grandiose plans are being promoted to link China’s railway network to cities as far-flung as London, Berlin, Moscow, New Delhi and Singapore. One route might connect Kunming in China’s southwest with Singapore another could link Urumqi to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and possibly extend to Germany a third could cross Russia from China’s northeast.

China is offering to provide technology, equipment and trains, and even construction costs for countries willing to supply natural resources.

Myanmar has reportedly confirmed that a 1920km line from Kunming to Yangon will be starting construction soon. Laos says a line to Vientiane may start construction in 2012. Agreements with Iran, Vietnam and Thailand also appear to be progressing. There have even been proposals for a high-speed link under the Taiwan Strait, although cost considerations and Taiwanese political reservations make it unlikely this will proceed.

In Part Two of this special feature on high-speed rail in China, Irvine explores some emerging doubts and criticisms of China’s high-speed rail expansion. See next week’s Rail Express.

*Roger Irvine is writing a PhD on China’s future at the University of Adelaide. He spent most of 2010 conducting research at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

Republished with permission from the Lowy Institute for International Policy’s publication, The Interpreter: