China High-Speed Rail Nears 10,000 Kilometers, Plans To Expand to 50,000 By 2020

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[Source: Wikipedia]

[Source: Wikipedia]

Apparently the debate as to whether or not high-speed rail is a cost effective way to travel hasn’t reached China. The country continues to go full speed ahead with its plans to connect its commercial centers with high-speed railways – 9,356 kilometers so far, and they don’t plan on slowing down anytime soon.

This past December China launched the connector between Beijing and Guangzhou. The 2,298 kilometer-long rail is the longest high-speed route in the world. That would be 1,427 miles in the US, and would span about the distance between Los Angeles and Dallas. The Beijing-Guangzhou line cut what used to be a 22 hour trip to just eight hours. The route is undoubtedly China’s most fruitful, connecting the capital to Guangzhou’s Pearl River Delta, a region that has shown an astonishing rate of economic growth – between 1980 and 2000 the Delta’s economy swelled more than eleven-fold. A major manufacturing hub and one of China’s most crowded regions, the Delta includes nine cities that are currently being connected with one-hundred and fifty major infrastructure projects including 10 routes of high-speed rail to connect the disparate cities into a single megacity four times the population of New York.

And then there’s the rest of China.

By 2015 (that's just 2 more years!) China is projected to nearly double to 18,000 kilometers of high-speed rail. By 2020 they plan on expanding to 50,000 kilometers.

China's high-speed passenger line already connects most of the country's major cities. [Source: Wikipedia]

China's high-speed passenger line already connects most of the country's major cities. [Source: Wikipedia]

The profusion of high-speed railways is already affecting the other high-speed mode of transportation. China’s three big airline carriers, Air China, China Southern Airlines and China Eastern Airlines, as well as others collectively reported losses for three months in a row – together, 1 billion yuan ($160 million) in the month of January. While other factors contributed to the losses, competition from high-speed rail has impacted demand enough that carriers have droppped many short-haul flights and increased the number of long-haul ones. Air China, for example, recently opened new Beijing-Geneva and Chengdu-Frankfurt routes last month in an effort to increase their market share in Europe. Carriers are also being forced into drastic ticket price reductions. According to South China Morning Post, promotional tickets are now being routinely offered at a discount of 90 percent or more, making them even cheaper than the cheapest seats available on many high-speed trains.

The use of high-speed rail in China continues to escalate despite the collision of two high-speed trains in Wenzhou in 2011. Officials blamed the collision on an overly-ambitious rate of expansion that led to “neglect of safety management.” The crash left left 40 dead, 172 injured and expedited the firing of China’s railway minister Liu Zhijun who was already facing corruption charges.

China’s ambitious plans will allow them to pull further ahead as the world leader in high-speed rail. Ground covered by their bullet trains have long since passed high-speed rail pioneer countries in Europe. In the United States, meanwhile, high-speed rail remains at a near standstill. In plain disagreement with pretty much the rest of the developed world, the US is slower than an 8th generation Honda Civic to adopt high-speed trains. Right now Amtrak’s Acela Express that runs the northeast corridor between Washington DC and Boston is the country’s sole high-speed rail service. Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida all rejected federal grants to build routes between 2010 and 2011. Florida’s governor Rick Scott said the projects were “too costly to taxpayers” and that “the risk far outweigh[ed] the benefits.”

But just weeks ago, nearly five years of battling a lawsuit that sought to keep the route from passing through certain cities, California has been given the go ahead on building a high-speed rail service between San Francisco and Los Angeles, a stretch of about 380 miles. The project is expected to cost $68 billion and be completed around 2028. If all projections are correct, the 600 or so kilometers laid down will take eight years longer than it would have taken China to build almost 48,000 kilometers.

A quarter of the world’s largest 500 urban areas are located in China, and the country’s urban population is expected to reach 900 million by 2030. It’s a big country, but clearly they want to shrink it through high-speed rail. If China’s economy comes anything close to surpassing that of the US – projected by some to occur in 2018 – surely the future will see there more manufacturing hubs like Pearl River Delta, a collection of cities that combine powers through high-speed links to become a kind of megacity. The 50,000 kilometers projection by 2020 seems, frankly, outrageously ambitious. But unlike the US, China seems single-minded in their positive thinking about high-speed rail, and no doubt they're going to go at it with full speed to make it happen.

Peter Murray

Peter Murray was born in Boston in 1973. He earned a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore studying gene expression in the neocortex. Following his dissertation work he spent three years as a post-doctoral fellow at the same university studying brain mechanisms of pain and motor control. He completed a collection of short stories in 2010 and has been writing for Singularity Hub since March 2011.

Discussion — 6 Responses

  • Beemac March 25, 2013 on 4:07 pm

    “High speed” rail is a 19th century invention dressed in a 21st century fantasy.

    It’s telling that a centrally planned economy has sunk over $400 billion into this mess and people are shunning it due to the high ticket prices. Spain is shutting down their network due to low speeds, high cost and low ridership.

    Planes are cheaper and faster with much less infrastructure and more flexibility that trains will ever have. Buses and cars in the USA are as fast or faster than the “high speed” links actual or proposed. Amtrak has proposed a $345 million per mile Boston-Washington link while California will be blowing at least $300 million per mile.

    I think this article has nothing to do with the Singularity. Which to me is about faster, cheaper, better and bottom up innovation in a free market, NOT authoritarian, top down diktat using money taken from it’s citizens.

    • Hans Stam Beemac March 25, 2013 on 8:57 pm

      I live in China and I have to disagree with you. Sure, the Chinese government has too much money, and needs to spend it on something. Sure, they are taking money from their citizens, but so is almost every country in the world (it’s called tax).
      It is amazing that I can travel from the center of china to the coast in less than 3 hours, and this does not have anything to do with the Chinese government being corrupt. It has to do with the will of the government to improve the county’s transportation system (and creating jobs for people).

      • Beemac Hans Stam March 26, 2013 on 1:56 pm

        That’s just it, this isn’t an “improvement”, it’s a drain on the economy. These types of trains don’t pay for themselves and won’t. So taxes are being poured into the ever deepening hole.

        Also, authoritarian regimes are even worse at creating usable and lasting infrastructure than socialist or democratic governments. How long until stories come out about crumbling bridges, tunnels and tracks on these lines?

        • jaxroam Beemac March 29, 2013 on 11:10 am

          The World Bank and others may differ with you there, but actually nobody knows for sure yet. The HSR network is so new we don’t know the consequences. This note list some items to consider:

          Actually, for some of these lines I think we can be sure will be profitable in all senses of the word, while there are other lines that I cannot see how could possibly be profitable in any sense of the word. Then there are those in the middle that probably won’t give any short-term return for the rail-road agency, or even long-term return on investment, but may be profitable for the regions by growing their economy.

          Anyway diminishing returns of the more expensive, less profitable unbuilt lines is likely to overshadow any network effect.

          In China there isn’t an either trains or planes, both are needed, both are rapidly being built. Maybe too rapidly, but the usage is growing, congestion is a problem. Beijing built T3 airport terminal, the world’s largest, just in time for the 2008 Olympics. Now five years later it is full.

  • gnormb March 25, 2013 on 6:10 pm

    Nice article and a striking contrast between what China is accomplishing and what the States, unfortunately, is failing to accomplish. I think a robust, transcontinental high-speed rail system would be a major boon to the US economy, though the projected costs are disturbingly high and the time frame is laboriously slow.

  • rtryon March 25, 2013 on 6:23 pm

    Trains in China vs the U.S. are not subject to the same considerations regarding cost/benefit. U.S. railroads have cost considerations that relate to over a century of labor history and many cost factors are as a result too complex to easily circumnavigate. Furthermore the needs and willingness of citizens to do as told vs what they want present a vastly different marketing model.

    No political or economic consideration is really the same and as China has already shown, its people are now far less pliable than they were a few decades ago. Millions of cars are now serving many Chinese in ways that are preferable to trains for the same reasons found in US history. How that changes with alternative fuels and other considerations remains to be seen.

    In a word, don’t make simplistic judgments.