Sat Sep 12th, 2015 at 06:43:57 PM EST
Let's interrupt our witnessing of Europe's self-destruction with austerity and xenophobia (well unless Corbyn, Podemos & co can turn the tide), with another update on a case study of what would be possible if our leaders would have real visions: China's rapid expansion of rail infrastructure.
I have no narrowly defined occasion to post this now, just that 2015 looks like the year the construction of high-speed lines peaks, and the finances of the operational network consolidate.
A CRH380CL (front) and a CRH380BL (back), which represent two successive stages in the domestic further development on the basis of Siemens's Velaro platform, meet at Beijing South in January 2014. Photo from Wimimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0
CRH: phases of development
I have followed the different phases in the extremely rapid development of the China Rail Highspeed (CRH) network on ET for seven years:
- shortly after the opening of the first proper high-speed line in 2008, the phase of escalating reckless ambition was described in China wants 380 km/h trains;
- not two years later, it was already time to declare The new high-speed superpower (on the basis of network length, number of trains and speeds);
- then China's premier line opened in crisis year 2011, when the arrest of the railway minister and the Wenzhou train crash led to a review of plans, construction suspensions and speed reductions;
- but in my 2013 China updates, I could report that healthy ridership and income growth on the existing network and the positive review of future projects led to a resumption of rapid construction (churning out thousands of kilometres of new lines a year);
- by the time of my last review in Rail infrastructure investment news in March 2014, the disparate lines started to link up into a continuous network, and the first major post-Wenzhou new projects were drawn up.
In the 18 months since then, the network in operation almost doubled again:
Map of China's elevated-speed network, as of September 2015. Legend:
- Line thickness = top speed :
- thick: 300 km/h
- medium: 220–250 km/h
- thin: 160–200 km/h
- Color = construction status:
- green: upgraded conventional line in service
- blue: new line in service
- purple: opened between March 2014 and early September 2015
- red: under construction
- grey: planned
At least a dozen more lines are due by the end of the year, while half a dozen more are due to begin construction. As for new projects, compared to 18 months ago, the most significant additions are the ones forming a second Beijing–Hong Kong corridor (more on the need for this later).
This year represents a peak of construction, at least in line length terms (with focus shifting to the superstructure-heavy lines across the mountains around Sichuan, cost per kilometre grows), and network expansion will slow down. Almost every line on the map will be finished by 2022 (year of the Beijing Winter Olympics). After that, I only expect a couple of additions and higher-speed upgrades each year.
The history of high-speed rail is full of projects that, due to this or that planning deficiency, failed to meet initial expectations, only to become a roaring success a few years later. CRH went through an extreme version of this: while in 2011, some feared (and US anti-rail propagandists hoped) that China will be crushed financially by a trillion-dollar debt for lines that, rejected by the public, will never turn a profit, now the renminbis are flowing and China is the only country where there has been a pro-high-speed rail riot(!). It's worth to look at how three specific lines performed.
The biggest success now is the most important and most expensive part of the network, the Beijing–Shanghai line. In 2014 (its third full year of operation), it carried more than 100 million passengers, and turned a profit a couple of years ahead of schedule. For scale, this is already two-thirds of the peak of the world's busiest high-speed line (the Tōkaidō Shinkansen), and pretty close to the design capacity of 120 million passengers/year! Hence:
...over 250 trains are running on the tracks every day, and even this cannot meet the need of passengers," said chairman Cai Qinghua. "We are about to build the second Beijing-Shanghai High-speed Railway if it continues developing this way."
Before that, the newly planned lines from Beijing to Hefei would provide relief.
The second case study is the Wuhan–Guangzhou line, which was one of the first to open. It was a big gamble as the first near-1,000 km line in the world, it provided for negative news with unmet initial ridership expectations, and its losses were of real significance due to its sheer size. However, it reached 50 million passengers in 2013, or 2½ times its initial year ridership, or about break-even level. A big factor was the opening of connecting lines (in particular its extensions to Beijing and Shenzhen), another the opening of urban rail connections to several of its stations.
The worst performer among all the projects is the Zhenzhou–Xi'an line, a 500 km line opened in early 2010 that saw less than 4 million passengers in its first year. This line, too, was hamstrung by bad connections, which have been alleviated by 2013, and traffic growth was rapid by then already. I couldn't dig up recent ridership numbers, but based on the number of train services (32 per day per direction now, vs. 12 in 2011), it should be around 15 million a year now. With further improvements (for example, the future Luoyang Metro, the Zhengzhou intercity network, and the line to Xuzhou in the east), further growth is guaranteed, and it's possible to reach the break-even level, with I estimate at about 50% above the current traffic.
The new metro superpower
As told in The metro revolution, China also launched an expansion of rapid transit systems that is on par with the high-speed rail programme. By now systems in operation earned China the metro superpower title:
- three dozen cities have a metro system in service or construction,
- the metro systems of Beijing and Shanghai are the only two in the world with a dedicated network exceeding 500 km (eclipsing London & New York),
- since last year, the same two also lead in annual ridership (eclipsing Tokyo, Seoul and Moscow), with Guangzhou close on their heels;
- the new networks are built with cutting-edge technology, for example showcasing most of the world's automated metro lines;
- hundreds of kilometres of new lines are added each year.
Unlike in the case of high-speed rail, there is no end in sight for the metro expansion, construction at the current frenzied rate could go on until 2050 and still not cover demand.
For some years now, the focus of conventional rail construction has been China's west. Some notable projects starting construction recently run to the west and east of the Tibetan capital and across the Gobi desert.
A potentially major new trend could be freight-dedicated lines. China already has three of these, connecting mines and seaports for its dirtiest commodity, coal. A recently approved fourth line will run inland in a north-south direction. But more might be constructed, for general freight and manufactured goods, because there are complaints about limited capacity on mixed-traffic lines.
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