x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

High-speed trains on track in China

Building Brics: Even though the high-speed rail network was established only in 2007, China now has the biggest in the world, with 9,356km of high-speed railways.

China opened the world’s longest high-speed rail line between Beijing and Guangzhou last month. The country’s high-speed railway network is expected to reach 18,000km by 2015. China Daily / Reuters
China opened the world’s longest high-speed rail line between Beijing and Guangzhou last month. The country’s high-speed railway network is expected to reach 18,000km by 2015. China Daily / Reuters

The silver engines gleam at their platforms, their sleek noses pointed towards their destinations. Inside they are well maintained, comfortable and a genuine alternative to flying between China's main cities. The ticket price is about the same in many cases.

The opening last month of the rail line between the capital, Beijing, and the southern commercial hub of Guangzhou means passengers can now cover the 2,298-kilometre route in just eight hours, a trip that used to take 22 hours.

The route includes the major cities Shijiazhuang, Wuhan and Changsha. The ministry of railways said more than 150 pairs of high-speed trains, one going in each direction, are running the new line daily.

Even though the high-speed rail network was established only in 2007, China now has the biggest in the world, with 9,356km of high-speed railways. Today, more people in China are travelling by high-speed rail than are flying.

This is set to continue as China sticks to its plans to increase urbanisation. In 2011, the number of Chinese living in cities passed 50 per cent, and by 2020, the government aims to have this figure at 60 per cent.

High-speed rail is increasingly regarded as the future of intercity travel in China, and the country's high-speed railway network will reach 18,000km by 2015, Sheng Guangzu, minister of railways, said during a recent rail conference.

That means more than 8,000km of high-speed railways will be put into service in 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 Guangzhou to Beijing high-speed train opened just in time for the world's greatest annual migration, the movement of hundreds of millions of people from the cities to their ancestral hometowns to mark China's Lunar New Year holiday period, which starts this year on February 9. The Chinese take two billion trips at this time of year, and already there is pressure on the ticketing system, although few migrant workers will be taking the high-speed rail home to see their families.

They tend to take the slow trains, and often stand the whole route. It is the emerging middle class and wealthy who take the high-speed train. Even though the Guangzhou to Beijing journey takes eight hours, versus about three hours flying, many travellers like that there are fewer interruptions, the view is pretty, you can walk around and it is easier to work from even if internet access seems a bit patchy and not all the seats have power points.

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 public safety into account.

The Beijing to Shanghai route covers 1,318km and runs 90 pairs of trains daily, with the trip taking four hours and 48 minutes, making one stop in Nanjing. It travels at a maximum speed of 300kph, down from the original average speed of 329kph, as the trains were made to go slower following the Wenzhou crash.

Investment in the high-speed rail network was a big part of China's infrastructure spending programme in 2008-09, when Beijing implemented a four trillion yuan (Dh2.36tn) stimulus to fight the financial crisis.

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

Wang Hui, the deputy dean of the school of economics and management at the Shijiazhuang Tiedao University in Hebei, told the China Daily about some of the opportunities the new train would bring.

"The Beijing-Guangzhou high-speed railway connects the economic region around Beijing with the Pearl River Delta," said Mr Wang. "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."

While the high-speed rail network will bring the usual direct economic benefits, such as time savings for travellers, cost savings for operators and reductions in air pollution and noise, the World Bank has urged China to also look at the wider economic benefits.

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 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 Mr Ollivier.

According to a report released late last year, four of the country's high-speed rail lines achieved break-even financial status since the bullet trains started full-speed intercity service, with ticket revenues matching costs, including debt payments, on several routes.

However, some customers continue to complain that the price is too high. The top price for a ticket from Beijing to Guangzhou is more than 2,000 yuan.

The high-speed rail is central to China's efforts to become more than just a low-cost manufacturer, and China has been building high-speed rail networks in foreign countries such as Turkey and Venezuela, and has ambitions farther afield.

During the construction of the rail network, China relied on technology 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.

Cao Jianlin, China's vice minister of science and technology, said he did not think intellectual property rights issues would have any impact on China's efforts to further develop its own high-speed system, and he described as "nonsense" copycat claims by Kawasaki Heavy Industries.

Mr Cao said it had taken years of innovation to come up with the technology, and he encouraged Chinese companies to file for patents overseas.

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

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 to help ease the increasing financial burden stemming from construction.

Wang Mengshu, a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, a national body, figures about 600bn yuan is 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," said Mr Wang.