Mon Feb 22nd, 2010 at 04:34:10 AM EST
China's mercantilist economic policy is paired with massive public investment in infrastructures. But, alongside programs for lots of new coal plants and mines, a giant highway system (with the result that most of the longest bridges in just about every category are now in China), oversized dams and new canal systems, and other programs often criticised for reproducing the West's past wasteful dirty industrialisation; there are also massive programs to expand wind power, mass transit -- and railways.
Two coupled CRH3s cross the Xiangjiang River over a bridge near Hengyang, Hunan Province. Photo by Liuping She from dahe.cn
The young People's Republic of China started out with a scarce network that was colonial and war infrastructure in character. To improve on that, the PRC expanded the network continuously across difficult terrain. Then the massive economic growth from the eighties led to ever more ambitious schemes. The 2001-5 five-year plan was already something without comparison: the new construction or upgrade (electrification, double-tracking, raised line speed) of 8 North-South and 8 East-West corridors, with more than 1,000 km of new lines added each year. (And most of this is really in place by now.) But that was still beans compared to the 2006-10 plan: while the expansion of the conventional network, now with focus on Western China, continued unabated, now a high-speed system exceeding all others in the world was to be built from scratch.
The programme was government priority and was flushed with stimulus money; and there was little bother with democratic and environmental issues like the expropriation of farmers, objections from local communities, drawn-out geological, impact and safety studies, or noise barriers; thus progress was rapid. By early February 2010, China Railway Highspeed (CRH) definitely became world's first in network length, number of ordered trains, top speed and travel speed.
A CRH2 above rice paddies near Beixiangzhen, Guangdong Province. Photo from Zhang Li-ming's blog
This diary concludes my status report on high-speed rail in the world (see Delays come to an end (EU HSR 2009) and The EU's emerging high-speed networkS).
China's high-speed ambitions began with the handover of Hong Kong to the PRC in 1997. The line from Guangzhou (Canton) to Shenzhen (at the border of Hong Kong) became very busy and was upgraded for 200 km/h. This is where the domestic industry could experiment with a series of prototypes and small series of fast electric multiple units (EMUs; see details in China wants 380 km/h trains).
Thus emerged the ambition to build a genuine high-speed line: one to connect the political capital and the de-facto commercial capital (and the original power base of then leader Jiang Zemin). The Beijing-Shanghai line already featured as one of the North-South corridors in the 2001-5 plan, but its construction didn't start until two years ago: as it was to be the world's longest high-speed line at over 1300 km, and was to face heavy competition from planes, the price tag is extreme and the choice of technology was critical. Decisionmakers long vacillated between three options:
- wait for domestic development to reach world standard,
- import conventional high-speed rail from Europe or Japan,
- import maglev from Germany.
The first option proved a dead end. In 2003, China opened its first 'high-speed' line, the Qinhuangdao-Shenyang (QinShen) passenger railway (paralleling a busy section of the mainline to Manchuria), and two manufacturers' prototypes meant to reach 300 km/h were tested here. However, the faster one (DJJ2 "China Star", with TGV-style tractor heads, see here) began to transport passengers only in 2005 and only at 160 km/h, and due to breakdowns, was scrapped after just a year. The rival (DJF2 "Pioneer", with ICE3-style distributed traction) fared barely better (regular service: 2007-9), but at least spawned two 180 km/h series units (DJF3 "Changbaishan"): all three carried passengers only 2007-9.
The first of the distributed power EMUs, the 120 km/h KZD1, KZD2 "Chuncheng Hao"-s from 1999, still run around Kunming. Photo via blog at Baidu.com
The demonstration of the third option, the Shanghai Maglev (an airport link operated with a maximum speed of 430 km/h since 2004), showed up its problems: high price, local protests on a scale bothering even the Party, and a manufacturer wary of technology transfer.
That left the second option.
In 2004, China Railways went shopping around the world. Instead of looking for the lowest bidder, all major manufacturers got an order.
- CRH1A: 20+20 8-car sets for 200 km/h, from (Canadian but with Germany-centred rail branch) Bombardier's Regina family (developed mostly in and for Sweden)
|A CRH1 that just left Wuhan's first Yangtze river bridge will soon pass under Yellow Crane Tower on 14 November 2006. Rutland/Xinhua photo from sina.com|
- CRH2A: 60 8-car sets for 200 km/h, based on (Japan-based) Kawasaki's series E2-1000 Shinkansen (for JR East of Japan)
- CRH3A/C: 60 8-car sets for 300 km/h, from (Germany-based) Siemens's Velaro family
- CRH5A: 60 8-car sets for 200 km/h, from (France-based) Alstom's Pendolino family (made mostly in Italy by what was Fiat Ferroviaria)
|A CRH5 crosses the Yongding river at Yingshan Park, on the Western outskirts of Beijing. Photo by pangdae from Flickr under Cc-by-nc-sa-2.0|
But, the orders were on conditions unusual from a developing country (but not unusual for developed countries, see Globalisation catches up with rail industry?): the foreign suppliers had to team up with local manufacturers, transfer series production there, as well as much of the technology. Not all manufacturers were willing to offer their top-shelf products, but those who did, could hope for a share in more big orders.
The trains, many operated "overspeed" (I'll return to that), could first show what's in them with the 18 April 2007 timetable change, when thousands of kilometres of existing lines were approved for higher speeds, including 848 km for 250 km/h (half of this the QinShen line).
The launch of CRH was a success, and the hoped-for further giant orders came. The new batches usually involved some development, and a reduced foreign input. But all four families grew:
- CRH1B: 20 16-car sets
- CRH1C: 20 8-car sets for 380 km/h (more on this later), from the Zefiro platform
- CRH1D: 60 16-car sets for 380 km/h, from the Zefiro platform
- CRH1E: 20 16-car sets for 250 km/h, the world's first high-speed sleeper trains; these aren't Reginas but from Bombardier's previously unbuilt Zefiro high-speed concept
|A CRH1E in one of the giant new modern stations (Beijing South I believe). Photo from china215|
- CRH2B: 20 16-car sets
- CRH2C 1st batch: 30 8-car sets for 300 km/h (with 6 rather than 4 cars powered)
- CRH2C 2nd batch: 20 more with uprated motors & minor changes to the fronts
- CRH2E: 20 16-car sets for 200 km/h, the second high-speed sleeper train
- CRH2?: 140 more for 350 km/h, 100 of them 16-car sets, significant redesign including CRH3 tech
|A significantly modified front design tested for, but not adopted on the CRH2C 2nd batch. Photo from Hasea.com forums|
- CRH3C: 140 more
- CRH3D: 100 16-car sets for 350 km/h
- CRH5A: 30 more sets
Meanwhile, a high-speed network began to emerge, suitable for those higher speeds. This involved heavy technology imports, too: key parts like the most commonly used fixed (slab) tracks or the train control system came from Europe.
The PDL network
While the decision on the technology for the Beijing-Shanghai line was still up in the air, for the 2006-10 five-year plan, China embedded it in a grander concept: a network of 4 North-South and 4 East-West corridors, altogether over 10,000 km of high-quality track.
For these lines, the terminology adopted wasn't high-speed line, but Passenger Dedicated Line (PDL). This had its reasons, but reasons soon overtaken by events.
The original concept was a high-speed network on the cheap: the entirety of half the corridors and sections of the others were to be for 200 km/h only. However, on one hand, for some of these lines, a mixed-traffic operation is more economical -- making "passenger-dedicated" a vague promise for an uncertain future when a parallel freight line is built.
A 16-car CRH1B (Bombardier Regina) crosses the bridge over the Liujiang River (near its mouth near Linhai, Zhejiang Province; note the bridge-guard's house) on the Ningbo-Wenzhou PDL. The South coast railway was in the 2001-5 plan of 8+8 corridors already, this 250 km/h mixed-traffic section is in service since 28 September 2009. Photo via SkyscraperCity
On the other hand, there were ever bolder plans for other lines. The very first line opened was key: Beijing-Tianjin.
This relatively short (113.5 km) section was prioritised for the 2008 Summer Olympics. Mere extra tracks for 200 km/h in the original plans, it became an almost completely elevated line on a separate alignment, with design line speed raised in steps to 350 km/h while construction was already on-going. (From the August 2008 opening, trains reportedly achieved then world record regular top speeds of 340 km/h. In its first year, the line carried 18.7 million passengers.)
A CRH3 (Siemens Velaro CN) on the elevated track of the then new Beijing-Tianjin high-speed line. Press photo from Siemens
Thereafter, planners not only dared to design further lines for higher speeds, but to design them with lots of superstructures. In particular, bridges and elevated sections. Construction companies became real pros in automated assembly of long bridges with prefabricated concrete spans.
Bridge construction on the Shijiazhuang-Taiyuan PDL (open for 250 km/h since 1 April 2009). Photo from Railway Gazette
There is a third effect of the Beijing-Tianjin line. It was decided at some point that the long-distance Beijing-Shanghai PDL shall have its own separate right-of-way. That made the first connection to Tianjin a high-speed "Intercity" line. Soon there were plans for similar high-speed or fast dedicated Intercity lines in a dozen conurbations.
Also in 2008, the global financial crisis hit. China's Keynesian response involved a massive increase of railway spending.
There is a paradox here: people talk of acceleration, even though practically all individual projects are suffering delays (even if on scales we'd dream of: say construction is planned for an insanely short 3 years but the line is completed in a still impressive 5 years). But the thing is that with the stimulus money, the number of lines constructed in parallel reached a sheer incredible level, unprecedented anywhere: by the end of 2009, almost the entire original 4+4 PDL network and much of the intercity projects was in the works. So were several additions to the national PDL network meant for regional development.
Sketch map of China's PDL network and other fast lines, adapted from Wikipedia's PDL network map (click to enlarge)
Line style indicates top speed:
- Thick: 350 km/h
- Medium thick: 250 km/h
- Dashed medium thick: 200 km/h with some 250 km/h sections or overspeed planned
- Thin: 200 km/h
Colors indicate progress:
- Green: upgraded conventional line in service
- Blue: new line in service
- Red: in construction
- Grey: planned
On 26 December 2009, service started on the first of the new lines for 350 km/h: Wuhan-Guangzhou (WuGuang) PDL. This line is a record holder in several respects:
- with about half the line on bridges and another sixth in tunnels, the cost was 116.6 billion yuan (c. 12.5 billion), a record sum even at the much lower Chinese specific costs (just 12.5 million/km!);
- with a line length of 968.4 km, this is the longest line built in one go (even if you subtract the last 46 km that was opened with a month's delay);
- the line also showcases the longest non-stop high-speed service;
- the travel speed (start-to-stop average) of these runs is currently a record 309 km/h;
- of course made possible by record regular top speeds of 350 km/h.
Above: two coupled CRH2s cross the Beijiang River over a bridge near Shaoguan, Guangdong Province. Photo by Liu Pingshe from Raildoor.
Below: A 16-car CRH3 crosses the Xinjie River bridge (near Guangzhou North Station) on a December 2009 test run, with the skyline of Huadu. Photo from Tong Guo-Qiang's blog
Tickets cost four times that of conventional expresses, 13 pairs of which were discontinued -- a common but customer-angering and IMO even economically ill-conceived policy (see "How (not) to get bad publicity" section of Puente AVE).
Another 350 km/h line, the 456.6 km Zhengzhou-Xi'an PDL, opened this past 6 February. The best travel speeds (Xiang-Luoyang non-stop) are above 300 km/h, too. Crossing weak ground (loess), this line is two-thirds bridges, including the world's longest (79,732 m -- but one on the Beijing-Shanghai PDL will be twice as long).
A CRH2 races towards on-lookers near Sanmenxia, Henan Province, during testing of the ZhengXi PDL on 25 January 2010. Photo from www.TAGD.com.cn
With that last addition, the total length of lines for speeds at or above 250 km/h are somewhere between 3300 (my calculation) and 4000 km (including lines officially for 250 km/h but obviously operated at only 200 km/h), putting China well ahead of previous leader Japan.
You will have noticed some discrepancies regarding actual and nominal top speeds in the previous two sections. The reason is a rather lax attitude of Chinese rail authorities concerning speed raises.
On the basis of some trial runs, trains designed, thoroughly tested and approved for a certain top speed are simply authorised to go "overspeed". Practically all the CRH sets mentioned are approved for, and scheduled to reach, 50 km/h more than their nameplate top speed -- and may exceed even that when the driver is in a hurry.
The same goes for lines: a speed raise for a section may be authorised for little more than being straight, without expensive upgrade in rails, catenary, signalling, grade separation, distance of tracks. Not to mention allowing trains with cross sections exceeding European ones to produce noise at 350 km/h atop elevated sections or through cities with sparse noise barriers.
A pair of CRH2s thunders across Xianning (south of Wuhan), on opening day 26 December 2009 on the WuGuang line. Photo by Du Huaju from Enorth.com.cn
There have been a number of breakdowns on the WuGuang line since opening, originating in both trains and infrastructure. However, those might have been birth pangs -- I am more expecting problems from longer-term wear & tear. In particular issues with axles, yaw damper ports, bogie frames, windshields, motors. The signalling side of conducting the higher-frequency traffic on the future Beijing-Shanghai line will also be interesting.
It does appear though that, as I surmised in China wants 380 km/h trains, decisionmakers are little troubled by the disadvantages in energy economics, noise emissions and ride comfort.
The Beijing-Shanghai PDL is 1,318 km long, and air traffic is well-developed. An acceptable travel time would be 4 hours -- which would call for top speeds of 380 km/h.
One and a half years ago, I was rather sceptical about China's ambition to produce suitable trains by 2012, but, seeing how the 'overspeed' recklessness and train orders developed since, I am less certain. If wear & tear won't catch up with the WuGuang line in two years, then China Railways will go for it for sure.
While the CRH3 and the latest CRH2 version in service are already 'oversped' to 350 km/h, the next 240 resp. 140 ordered last year will have that speed as nominal speed -- 'allowing' overspeeding to the desired 380 km/h. (For the CRH2, design improvements include increased motor power, better ride comfort, and CRH3-like stronger nose structure to resist the wind load; but from the little I read, attempts to improve aerodynamics with a modified nose shape were less successful.)
In addition, the latest batch of the CRH1 (Bombardier Zefiro) is aimed for 380 km/h as nominal speed. This is quite some ambition for a design existing only on the drawing board, but we'll see.
Zefiro 380 concept drawing from Bombardier
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