by Mary Burdman
[A PDF version of this article in entirety is available here] Well worth a read
To build the currently planned 16,000 km high-speed system, China is "leaping over" decades of technological development. Future development will require even more advanced technologies, especially, magnetic-levitation systems, now begin applied only on a minuscule scale, to meet world economic needs.
The immediate plan is to have an overall passenger and freight rail network of 110,000 km by 2012, from 86,000 now, Rail Minister Liu Zhijun announced in his annual report to the national rail conference on Jan. 7. This will grow to 120,000 km by 2020. This great project is being constructed at a rate only comparable to that achieved by the United States in the late 19th-early 20th centuries. Since then, the U.S. has cannibalized its rail system to half of its 1930 total of over 400,000 km (250,000 miles)—by far the most extensive national rail system ever created. Europe, including Ukraine and Belarus, but not European Russia, now has just over 270,000 km of rail lines.
As China's leaders well know, despite rapid construction during the past decades and especially the past five years, the current rail system is utterly inadequate to meet the requirements for developing an economy of 1.3 billion people. Per capita, China has only 6 centimeters (!) of rail per person. At the same time, China's leaders are breaking with the disastrous "globalization order," by recognizing that a nationally directed rail network is the only transport system which can possibly function in the nation—air and auto transport are far too inefficient, too costly, and far less safe.
China's current great rail project will transform society as well as the economy, raising living standards across the nation, which is essential to lessen the severe income gap that divides the rural vast majority of the population, from the much better-off urban population. Increased rail transport will create a new level of national integration. China's high-speed passenger transport network will connect all provincial capitals and large cities with a population of over 500,000. The concept is to build an "8-hour transport circle," to bring every important city in China within eight hours' travel time to Beijing, or, where distances are still too great, another big city. This high-speed network will eventually be within accessible distance to 90% of the population. Some RMB2 trillion ($293 billion) has been allocated for already approved projects for the next decade. In the coming three years, 3.5 billion renminbi (RMB) of the stimulus, will be spent for rail investment, the China High-Speed Railway summit announced.
In September 2008, Zhang Shuguang, director of the transportation department of the Rail Ministry and deputy chief designer of the project, said that, by 2012, China will complete a high-speed rail network of 42 lines, comprising 13,000 km. Current plans are to expand this system rapidly, to 16,000 km—and according to latest reports, 20,000 km—by 2015. China's high-speed system will be at least as long as the entire rest of the world together by the end of 2012. There will be two types of tracks, one for the main corridors, where trains will travel at speeds of 350 km/h—the fastest in the world—and the rest for "slower" trains which run up to 200 km/h. Europe's high-speed network is just over 3,000 km, scheduled to triple, but only by 2020. Japan's "bullet train" is still using technology developed decades ago. Modern high-speed rail does not exist in the United States.
China is also becoming the world's leader in high-speed rail technology. It has imported from Germany, Japan, and France, but is now generating new technologies itself, putting them to work over unprecedented distances. On Dec. 27, the Wuhan-Guangzhou high-speed line was opened, the world's fastest and, by far, the longest, which tested at over 390 km/h, and is now carrying passengers at 312 km/h over almost 1,000 km. This was the first time ever that such speeds were able to be sustained over such a distance.
Last September, Zhang Shuguang said that a domestically developed train capable of reaching speeds up to 500 km/h will be produced by the end of 2010, China News Service reported. This train will also be able to run on regular track—at much lower speeds—making it possible to integrate cities not yet on the high-speed grid, into the new system, and greatly increasing transport efficiency.
China also has built the world's only commercial maglev train, in Shanghai, capable of running over 400 km/h, but it rarely reaches that speed due to the very short length of the track. Although no decision has been made, at present, on any significant extension, a new, lower-speed, 27 km maglev line, is now being built in Beijing.
The expanded freight transport will be especially important for western China, where the rail system remains far sparser than the rest of the country. China will extend railways to more than 50,000 km in its vast western regions by 2020, Yan Hexiang, deputy director of the development planning department of the Ministry of Railways, said Nov. 23. Currently, a 1,758 km railway between Lanzhou and Urumqi is under construction. Other projects include the new Chengdu-Guiyang, Chongqing-Guiyang, and Kunming-Nanning railways. When China began its "West Development Strategy" in 2000, the population was only 370 million, in over 70% of the country's total land area. Operating railways in the West were expanded 50% from 20,000 km in 2000 to nearly 30,000 km by 2008, but this is still just 36% of China's total.
The High-Speed Grid
The high-speed rail grid is a gigantic project. There will be eight trunk lines, four North-South and four East-West, and another 34 lines. Every important city in the eastern, western, and central regions will be included. Some 8,000 km of track are designed for train speeds of 350 km/h, and the rest will accommodate 250 km/h travel. The new system will be able to carry 7 billion passengers a year. Travel times will be cut in half or more: Wuhan-Guangzhou was cut from 10 to 3 hours; when the centerpiece Beijing-Guangzhou line opens in 2012, travel time will be cut from the current 20 hours to just eight.
Yan Hexiang, deputy director of the development planning department of the Ministry of Railways, announced the network Nov. 23.