September 28th, 2010

High-speed rail in China.

From China: A future on track in the Financial Times last week:
Today the country has the world’s largest high-speed rail network, which it plans to nearly triple to more than 16,000km by 2020. That will provide enough track to stretch from Beijing to London and back. The government has budgeted well over $100bn each year for the next few years for building and upgrading the creaking system – a figure expected to account for more than half of all global railway spending during that period, according to World Bank estimates.

“This high-speed programme is a political project with little economic value,” says Zhao Jian, a professor at Beijing Jiaotong University who favours conventional rail rather than high-speed projects. “The government just wants to have the biggest and fastest number one train set in the world.”

The railway ministry accounts for as much as 10 per cent of all outstanding debt in the country, according to World Bank estimates. Chinese analysts say the proportion of railway construction funded by debt has increased from under 50 per cent in 2005 to more than 70 per cent last year.

“This is a real debt crisis building up for the government and it is going to break at some point,” Mr Zhao says.
I rode on three of China's high-speed rail services and one of its conventional rail routes this spring. I hope to post about them in detail later. My immediate reaction to Prof. Zhao's comments is that he's certainly right so far about high-speed rail in China being a political project. The rail services
  • leave and arrive at gleaming new stations which are often as yet unconnected to the urban transit network

  • charge prices which are prohibitively high for the average Chinese

  • generally have more services throughout the day than warranted by demand

All of this is great if you're a visiting foreigner with money--although the bit where the stations are in the middle of outlying construction zones and accessed only by shuttle bus or taxi gets to be inconvenient--as you can simply walk up to the ticket windows at any time and normally be assured of getting a seat in either available class. But if you're the average Chinese your old conventional service has probably seen some service cuts making the process of buying tickets more difficult than ever.

China is building a rail service for the country they aspire to be, as opposed to the one they are now. For the local rail passenger this is a problem, even though it's a great travel experience for railway enthusiasts like me.

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