High-Speed Railways in China: Fundamentally changing the socioeconomic structure and bringing dreams to the world

MENG Jianjun
Visiting Fellow, RIETI

Fresh start from the lesson of the accident

At the end of October 2013, I traveled from Beijing to Hangzhou. By rail, the distance traditionally is 1,663 kilometers as it traverses the long way, through Shanghai. For that reason, those making the journey almost exclusively traveled by air. However, the situation has changed dramatically, with the opening of a new high-speed rail link on July 1, 2013 that directly connects the 259 kilometers from Nanjing to Hangzhou.

At 8:30 a.m., I left Beijing South Railway Station, riding a train named Hexie Hao that runs at 300 kilometers per hour, crossing the Yellow River after 90 minutes and the Yangtze River after three and a half hours. At 1:37 p.m., the high-speed train arrived at Hangzhou Railway Station safely, having traveled approximately 1,300 kilometers, almost comparable to the distance from Tokyo to Kagoshima. The travel time was five hours and seven minutes, but it was the most comfortable journey I had ever had.

The disastrous collision and derailment of high-speed trains that occurred on July 23, 2011 still lingers in the memories of many people. Because of this accident, which happened near Wenzhou, concerns about the safety of high-speed rail in China increased in China and overseas, and the Chinese government was heavily criticized. As a result, the government decided to restrict the running speed of high-speed trains and postpone some development projects. Given that the development of the high-speed railway network had made a significant contribution to economic growth in China, the impact of the accident was large, and the future of high-speed rail was in question.

From the summer of 2011 to the early spring of 2012, high-speed rail construction and operation sites practiced a policy of strictly focusing on safety, taking as a lesson the fact that the previous emphasis on speed had been at the expense of safety. After improving the safety control system, the Chinese government also quietly resumed the development and test run of new rolling stock and the construction of new high-speed rail lines.

Development of high-speed railway networks in China: From within an economic zone to between economic zones

At the end of the 20th century, high-speed rail was thought to have economic potential if the trains could run in the 200 kilometer range per hour, and the maximum speed was limited to 270 kilometers per hour. A typical example is the Tokaido shinkansen in Japan.

In August 2000, I made a policy recommendation to the Chinese central government about the construction of a high-speed rail line between Beijing and Shanghai. The main point was that China should construct a high-speed railway network within an economic zone where the trains could arrive within three hours, focusing on the economies of scale of a long-distance line such as the one between Beijing and Shanghai, rather than considering the economic rationality of running high-speed trains at 200 kilometers per hour. However, the speeding up of railways in China has been advancing much faster than the world expected.

High-speed trains began operating at 250 kilometer per hour in 2007, but the running speed of trains on the route between Beijing and Tianjin, which was opened to coincide with the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, was 350 kilometers per hour. In the fall of 2010, mass production began of the CRH380 train, with a designed speed of 380 kilometers per hour and an actual speed of 350 kilometers per hour. The test speed of the CRH380BL train reached 487 kilometers per hour on the Beijing to Shanghai route. This would enable a traveler starting out from Beijing to reach the capitals of all provinces in China within eight hours, except for Lhasa in Tibet and Urumqi in Xinjiang, and domestic high-speed railway networks that connect economic zones became reality.

According to the announcement of the China Railway Corporation, the operational high-speed rail network reached 11,028 kilometers at the end of 2013, accounting for approximately 50% of the high-speed lines operated worldwide and nearly quadruple the length of the lines in Japan. In addition, another 12,000 kilometers of high-speed lines are under construction. A basic framework of a "four vertical and four horizontal" high-speed rail network has been developed across China, and the development projects of ambitious domestic high-speed railway networks have entered a new phase, with local governments as the major player.

Unique technological advancement: Advantages and favorable conditions for innovation

Thanks to the development of domestic high-speed railway networks in China, unique technologies have been advanced. As the absorption and redevelopment of foreign technologies by research and development institutions and railway companies have made greater progress than expected, unique, extremely safe, high-speed train cars and components have been steadily developed. A broad range of tests have been conducted, for instance, on integrated systems and foundation works as a result of domestic production, and this has resulted in new technical innovation.

The 904-kilometer route between Harbin and Dalian, which was opened on December 1, 2012, was a test route for a high-speed train with a designed speed of 350 kilometers per hour or faster that was uniquely developed in China to be able to run in a frigid region subject to heavy snowfall. This route was designed to withstand temperatures of -40°C to 40°C and complex climate conditions, with high-speed rolling stock, technical equipment, foundation works, and other elements that are able to cope with an inhospitable environment. This is unprecedented in the history of high-speed rail. Notably, equipment that protects the fast track, power supply system, and signal system from ice and snow and extremely low temperatures in winter was installed. In the winter season from December 1 to March 31, the trains run at 200 kilometers per hour on a winter timetable to ensure safety.

On June 4, 2014, a running test began on the 1,776-kilometer route between Lanzhou and Urumqi, aiming for the operation at the end of the year. The route connecting Lanzhou in Gansu and Urumqi in Xinjiang is the world's longest high-speed rail link to be constructed at one time, and windbreak walls and fences stretching 500 kilometers were established along the tracks to protect the railway from storms in the Gobi Desert. The line includes a 16-kilometer tunnel built at 3,600 meters above sea level, nearly comparable to the top of Mt. Fuji. Xinjiang itself has changed dramatically with the opening of the route between Lanzhou and Urumqi, and it is now a destination that can be reached within a day, as you can travel to Urumqi in eight hours from Lanzhou, 10 hours from Xian, 14 hours from Beijing, and 18 hours from Guangzhou and Shanghai.

China, with its vast land mass, offers more advantages and favorable conditions for innovation in high-speed railway than any other country, as well as the strength of being able to develop and manufacture using its own technologies.

New institutional design: Toward a decentralized system with responsibility

On June 4, 2014, the National Development and Reform Commission officially approved the construction of the route between Jinan and Qingdao in Shandong province. However, rather than being fully funded by the central government, 80% of the cost of the construction of this route will be incurred by Shandong province.

This is the first construction of a high-speed line funded primarily by local government investment since the reforms to the rail investment and loans that began in August 2013. With respect to funding for this railway, the local government has called for the active participation of international financial institutions, as it aims for 20% of the financing to be sourced from investments and the purchase of shares by domestic companies and private capital, and another 20% allocated for foreign capital. On August 7, 2014, "The Jinan Qingdao Railway Company Limited (chips) Introduction of Strategic Investors Notice" was posted in the Chinese media, including the People's Daily. At the same time, a "three vertical and three horizontal" intercity railway network plan stretching for 3,800 kilometers in Shandong province was also approved, with the aim of fundamentally changing the socioeconomic structure within the province by connecting all cities in two hours.

Although investment in rail by the central government will decline in the future, investments at the initiative of local governments are expected to increase under a new institutional design. In China, economic structural reform in favor of a more decentralized system that is responsible for corporate governance is accelerating with the demise of the Ministry of Railways and the anti-corruption campaign.

A new era of high-speed railways

In the process of China's urbanization, the core player in environmentally responsible transportation will simply be the construction of domestic high-speed rail networks. The building of high-speed lines will shorten the distance between regions and change the lifestyles of people and cities. According to China's Medium- to Long-Term Railway Network Development Plan, domestic high-speed railway networks will cover more than 90% of the national land and connect all cities with a population of half a million people or more in the future.

On July 25, 2014, receiving technological assistance from China, a high-speed railway covering the 533 kilometers between Ankara and Istanbul in Turkey and running at 250 kilometers per hour began operations. On July 30, 2014, the Thai government approved a plan to construct two high-speed railways to link China and Thailand, with completion targeted in 2021. In addition, on June 17, 2014, the prime minister of the United Kingdom and the premier of China agreed to allow Chinese companies to enter the field of high-speed railways in the United Kingdom.

China is now carving out a new era of high-speed railways. One dream is a line that connects China, Russia, Canada, and the United States, stretching 13,000 kilometers or longer and running through a tunnel under the 200-kilometer Bering Strait. Another dream is a new Silk Road, in the form of a high-speed railway linking Beijing and London, with all the romanticism of connecting Central Asia, the Middle East, Russia, and Europe on trains that cross the desert regions, bringing stability and development. The route between Lanzhou and Urumqi that is currently being tested will play a large role in this vision.

High-speed rail in China is running steadily towards a future that makes these dreams a reality.

September 22, 2014

September 22, 2014