A high-speed train passes Shenyang South Railway Station in Liaoning Province last November
On the 814 bus, one of the major nine bus routes between Hebei’s Yanjiao township and downtown Beijing, the air was filled with the smell of commuters’ breakfasts. Every day, half of the town’s 300,000 residents reportedly squeeze into packed vehicles to commute. To ease the traffic pressure, bullet trains began taking Yanjiao’s commuters to and from Beijing each day as of January 12, cutting the travel time in half.
However, most of Yanjiao’s commuters cannot take the train due to the limited number of seats.
But the commuters from Yanjiao and other areas around Beijing may find travel easier soon as more intercity railways are expected to be built.
Hebei Province has said that it will build four rail lines, including routes between Beijing’s Yizhuang area and the Hebei’s Langfang, and between Beijing’s Fangshan district and Hebei’s Zhuozhou, news portal people.cn reported.
These projects are part of a new wave of railway construction planned for the coming few years.
As of the end of 2014, China has over 110,000 kilometers of railways, 15,000 kilometers of which are high-speed railways.
Although the details of the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20) for railway development, drafted by the National Railway Administration and submitted to higher authorities for deliberation in January 2015, have not yet been revealed, railway experts predict that railway development in less developed regions, as well as the growth of intercity and suburban routes will be a priority and that investment in these areas will remain high.
Westward railway development
“As most major trunk lines have been built in eastern regions while railways in middle and western China are weakly linked, future investment is expected to focus on central and western regions to drive economic development there,” Cheng Shidong, a director at the Institute of Comprehensive Transportation with the National Development and Reform Commission, told the Global Times.
The majority of the railway projects approved last year are to be built in those areas, Cheng said.
In one month alone, the NDRC approved three railway projects worth more than 10-billion yuan ($1.61 billion) each in central and western regions, including Chongqing Municipality, Henan, Hubei and Hunan provinces and the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, the 21st Century Business Herald reported.
In September 2014, Premier Li Keqiang stressed that infrastructure construction will tilt toward central and western regions during the 13th Five-Year Plan.
The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is often mentioned as being a key area for infrastructure development by rail experts on account of its strategic significance for the country’s Silk Road Economic Belt initiative and the need to maintain stability.
“One prerequisite for making Xinjiang a new engine of China’s economic growth is to construct railways, facilitating easy travel to sparsely populated areas,” said Gao Bai, a sociology professor with Duke University in the US.
After labor-intensive industries are transferred to Xinjiang, [agricultural]products manufactured in Xinjiang can be exported to Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe by train, which is much faster than transporting goods by sea, Gao told the Global Times.
President Xi Jinping proposed in 2013 that China and Central Asian nations collaborate in building the Silk Road Economic Belt.
“[Besides,] strengthening the connection between the capital Urumqi and other cities in Xinjiang, intercity railways will play a role in maintaining its social stability,” said Wang Mengshu, a senior rail expert from the Chinese Academy of Engineering.
Wang said that when cities in Xinjiang are connected by high speed rail links, the government will encourage more businesses to move to the region from eastern and central China, stimulating the local economy and providing job opportunities for locals.
2015 will witness the launch of three intercity railways from Urumqi to the southern Xinjiang cities of Turpan, Korla as well as the Zhundong development zone in northern Xinjiang, which is rich in oil and coal.
Cheng Zhongxing, a deputy director of the high-speed railway development study center at Southwest Jiaotong University, expressed regret over the fact that the high-speed rail link between Urumqi and Beijing that will start full operation in 2017 is not as fast as it could have been.
“The top speed was originally going to be 350 kilometers per hour, at which pace passengers can arrive in Beijing in eight hours, while now the top speed is only 200 kilometers,” he said. “Eight hours could have meant a much closer mental attachment to China’s capital for Xinjiang.”
Intercity and suburban railways
Following the completion of major high-speed railway lines across China, the focus will be shifted onto facilitating short trips via the construction of intercity railways among city clusters and building suburban railways for commuters, Cheng Shidong said.
“Since cities in the Yangtze River Delta in East China, including Shanghai, Nanjing and Ningbo, have strong economic ties with each other, frequent business trips among the cities will need intercity railways,” he said, adding that the Pearl River Delta in South China also boasts these kinds of “mature economic circles.”
However, there are only a few “mature economic circles” in China, Cheng Shidong said, adding that “laying intercity railways will be a mid- and long-term strategy when more circles emerge.”
Guangxi, Shandong and Zhejiang have disclosed their intercity railway plans. Zhejiang’s plans to construct four intercity railway networks – with cities including Hangzhou, Ningbo, Wenzhou and Taizhou as hubs – were approved by the NDRC in late December. Journeys between the cities and counties will take only one hour, the National Business Daily reported on December 24.
Zhao Jian, a professor at Beijing Jiaotong University, agreed with Cheng and said suburban railways will also be on the agenda.
“Metropolises have numerous residents that live in suburbs … About 40,000 kilometers of tracks are expected to be laid for commuters, which will provide ample room for the development of suburban railways,” Zhao told the Global Times.
Debate over further expansion
Experts agreed that large-scale investment in railway construction will be maintained, given the risks China faces from its economic downturn and excess production capacity.
“As China has suffered from slower economic growth, the government will resort to investment in railways, which is a feasible way to boost the real economy,” Gao said, adding that other sectors, such as the solar and property development industries have already faced the problem of overbuilt production capacity.
Also, the cement and steel industries have already suffered from overproduction, a problem that can be ameliorated by railway construction, said Cheng Zhongxing.
However, Zhao called for the construction of high-speed railways to halt in July as the debts racked up by the State-owned China Railway Corporation have surpassed 3 trillion yuan and most high-speed railways cannot earn enough profit to justify the necessary investment due to inadequate passenger numbers.
By Chen Heying