China’s economy and society are undergoing a drastic transformation, in which Chinese high-speed rail, being the longest HSR network in the world despite its history of less than ten years, has an increasingly important role. This article looks at the history of developing Chinese high-speed railway traffic, and by considering the advantages and disadvantages of the development, it examines the reasons why the Chinese government pays special attention to the programme.
According to the official Chinese definition, high-speed railway (HSR) lines (gaosu tielu) generally refer to passenger dedicated lines with a speed of 250 km/h and above.  A China Rail – High-Speed train (CRH) service was first introduced on 18 April 2007, between Beijing and Tianjin. In 2015, it was used by more than 1.1. billion passengers. China’s high-speed rail tracks had exceeded 20,000km by the summer of 2016; more than half of the world’s high-speed rails are in China, and 28 of the country’s 33 provinces are now linked by a standard network. The Mid-to-Long Term Railway Network Plan, adopted in 2004 and updated in 2008, laid out a railway development plan through 2020, including the connection of all provincial capitals and cities above 500,000 people to a national rapid rail network, the entire length of which will be doubled by 2025 (in comparison with the 18,000km at the end of 2015), and extended to 45,000km by 2030.  By 2020, the government hopes, the high-speed railways will be used by 5 billion passengers. 
The high-speed railway of the East Asian country holds several records. China has the world’s longest high-speed line, spanning 2,298km between the cities of Beijing and Guangzhou. The world’s longest high-speed rail service is available between the cities of Harbin and Wuhan, taking a total of 2,446km, and 14 and a half hours. The world’s fastest regular passenger train can also be found in China, the magnetic levitation train running at a top speed of 430 km/h while completing the 30km-long distance connecting Shanghai Pudong International Airport and the Shanghai city centre. The world’s longest viaduct bridge of 164.8 km between Danyang and Kunshan is part of the Chinese high speed rail system. The section from Harbin and Dalian is noted for the fact that it has to accommodate temperatures from minus 40 degrees Celsius to 40 degrees Celsius above zero. 
Peculiarly, the network is basically made up of four components: 1) newly built, mostly passenger dedicated lines; 2) newly built conventional rail lines that can carry high-speed passenger and freight trains; 3) upgraded pre-existing rail lines that can accommodate high-speed trains;  4) regional, “intercity” lines. According to the Mid-to-Long Term Railway Network Plan, the axis of the network is constituted by eight mainlines: 4 vertical and horizontal ones, with a total length of some 12,000 kilometres, designed for a minimum speed of 300 to 350 km/h, and dedicated exclusively to passenger trains. The mainlines are crossed by several high-speed secondary railway lines, which can also carry freight trains. The main lines are going to be completed by 2020, making all provincial capitals – except Lhasa – accessible within 12 hours from the capital.
State planning for China’s current high-speed railway network began between Beijing and Shanghai in 1990, under the supervision of the Ministry of Railways (Tiedaobu).Although China was a very poor country then, the key rail line from Beijing to Shanghai was facing overcapacity issues and running inefficiently.  However, the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party was not unanimous on the necessity of a high-speed railway. Opponents noted that high-speed rail was expensive and there was no real demand for it, due to the weak purchasing power of the population. In addition, some supporters proposed the implementation of a magnetic levitation (maglev) train, considered to be the future of railway transport, instead of conventional technologies, but, owing to the high costs and the difficulty of connecting it with existing lines – and the fact that at the time Germany was the only country which had the technology and was rather unwilling to give it to China – this option was not realized.  Eventually, a more traditional steel-on-steel rail technology was chosen for the railway, and the construction of the first line of a speed of 200 km/h was launched in 1999. The greatest challenge that the Chinese industry had to face was to produce the necessary locomotive.  Although there were serious attempts to develop a domestically made locomotive, eventually, in 2002, the State Council (Guowuyuan) decided to purchase foreign technology. At the beginning, the Ministry of Railways preferred Japanese Shinkansen technology, but due to the population’s resistance, it solicited new bids in 2004. There were four applicants: Japanese Kawasaki, Canadian Bombardier (but with premises in Germany), French Alstom and German Siemens, which withdrew its bid first, then submitted it again.  The applicants had to meet several criteria: they had to adapt train-sets to China’s own common standard; co-operate with two state-owned companies, appointed by the State Council (China North Rail (CNR; Zhogguo bei che gufen youxian gongsi) and China South Rail (CSR; Zhogguo nan che gufen youxian gongsi); manufacture in China and then transfer the technology to the Chinese party. All applicants won the bid, and were commissioned with the delivery of some 400 carriages. Technology was not just simply transferred to Chinese state-owned companies, but was simultaneously developed further. In 2010, the Ministry of Railways announced the beginning of the development of “super-speed” railway technology, which would increase the maximum speed of trains to over 500 km/h. 
On 1 August 2008, the first high-speed railway line, the Beijing–Tianjin Intercity Railway (with a top-speed of 350 km/h) opened in time for the Olympics. Thanks to the large-scale development in the period between 2007 and 2010, almost a hundred cities were linked by high-speed railways, becoming the longest network in the world. However, developments were accompanied by severe mistakes: vehicles often malfunctioned, concerns about safety and corruption were also raised.  The greatest disruption of railway development was caused by the Wenzhou accident on 23 July 2011, resulting in the death of 40 people. As a consequence of the accident, three senior officials of the Ministry of Railways (Long Jia, Li Jia, He Shengli) were dismissed and the speed of trains was reduced for two months.  In early 2011, the head of the Ministry of Railways, Liu Zhijun was dismissed on corruption charges and was also expelled from the Chinese Communist Party.  Following the crash, new safety checks were launched, and the speed of Chinese high-speed trains were further reduced. Due to the difficult financial situation of the Ministry of Railways, the government halted the construction of several lines.
At the beginning of 2012, the Chinese government resuscitated the development of high-speed rail transport, primarily to drive flagging economic growth. During the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015) more than 3,580 billion yuan was spent on the development of the Chinese railway.  In March, 2013 the Ministry of Railways was dissolved: duties were taken up by the Ministry of Transport (Jiaotong Yunshubu) and leadership was decentralized (in regional centres). The network and the carriages are provided by state-owned China Railway Corporation (Zhongguo Tielu Zonggongsi). As a result of reforms, private investors have also appeared in rail constructions (first Xinjiang in 2013 with $4 million USD). Although the system as a whole continued to make loss, certain lines started to earn profit: first the Shanghai–Nanjing line, then the Beijing–Tianjin, the Beijing–Shanghai and the Shanghai–Hangzhou lines as well. The success of developing transferred foreign technology is reflected by the first domestically developed train, CRH380A, launched in 2010. As a result, China has become competitive abroad as well. For a more efficient competition with foreign manufacturers, the government merged CSR and CNR, the two major manufacturers of high speed trains, into a company called China Railway Rolling Stock Group (Zhongguo zhong che gufen youxian gongsi), which has become the largest rolling stock manufacturer in the world. High-speed rail transport has a prominent role also in the 13th five-Year Plan, ensuring the implementation of an extremely ambitious plan aiming at having a network of at least 30,000km, and connecting 80 percent of China’s cities by 2020. 
Critics of high-speed railway transport and the price of development
According to the critics of high-speed railway transport, there are two reasons why China should have refrained from launching the programme. First, high-speed rail is too expensive in comparison with China’s level of development; second, the population is not well-off enough to use the service.
Unit Cost of PDL
Several factors influence the cost of a HSR project construction. The major factors include the line design speed, type of tracks, topography, climate and weather conditions, land acquisition costs, use of viaducts/bridges/tunnels instead of embankments, the size of stations, etc. A study made by the World Bank in 2014 shows that the construction of high-speed rails in China is considerably less expensive than in Western countries.
The unit cost of the high-speed rail of a speed of 350 km/h is $17to 21 million USD (RMB100-125 million) per km. However, the cost of HSR construction in Europe, having design speed of 300 km/h or above is estimated to be of $25-39 million USD per km, while as high as $52 million USD per km in California. 
As in other countries of the world, unit cost varies substantially depending on the line design speed. The unit cost of 350 km/h projects is between RMB94-183m per km. The unit cost of 250 km/h PDLs is, with a couple of exceptions, between RMB70-169m per km.
Aside from the lower cost of manpower, the relatively low cost of land acquisition and resettlement is
Percentage of Total Project Costs of High-Speed Railways Constructions per km
also likely to have led to lower HSR unit cost in China.  The fact that public land ownership greatly contributes to the fast pace of developments, should not be overestimated. Rail construction costs are also kept low through the standardization of steps in the manufacturing process. Finally, the scale and pace of the rail development programme have also affected construction costs positively: using capacities continuously has reduced unit amortization for companies and storage costs have also been lower. In addition, because of previous constructions, the background infrastructure required for constructions is available in several Chinese provinces, therefore machines do not need to be moved in long distances for constructions.
Overall, it can be concluded that HSR construction in China is considerably cheaper than in Western countries, and it has imposed less burden on China’s economy than preliminary estimates indicated.
While conventional rail traffic has grown at 1.5 percent annually, CRH traffic has grown at 39 percent per annum since 2008. Chinese passengers overwhelmingly think (85.7%) it will be the main transportation of the future, and like it primarily for its comfort.  There are many positives to the use of high-speed rails, as opposed to airlines: airports are located further away from cities, security checks are minimal, reducing the time needed to be spent at stations.  The ticket prices of high-speed rail are usually three or four times higher than that of regular-speed rail, but are still cheaper than airline or intercity bus tickets. These fares, however, are about one quarter or one fifth of the fares applied in other HSR countries. The average length of travel for CRH passengers is about 330 km, but it is lengthening, thanks to the opening of long railway sections. The average seat
taken on CRH services than by air; however, only short air routes (below 800 km) tend to be cancelled when faced with HSR competition. Generally speaking, for trips under 150 kilometres, car and bus often remain competitive, especially if the HSR station is located far from the city centre, while for trips of over 1,000 km air is still an attractive option.  HSR passengers stayed approximately one day less away from home than those on conventional trains, trading off higher fares against accommodation expenses. This might in part explain why there were a number of HSR passengers with relatively modest incomes.
The fears of lack of demand for HSR have proved groundless; in recent years, more and more lines have become profitable. Critics being afraid that HSR would take away passengers from conventional services have not been right, either; rather, it has just proven that conventional services were constrained by their limited capacities, and a new type of service was needed.
Reasons for developing China’s high-speed rails
There are several reasons supporting China’s high-speed rail transport, and the central government continues to actively promote its development. China has a vast continental area and a large population, High-speed rails significantly increase transport capacities, because they are usually built next to existing lines. While new rails ensure rapid passenger transport, the existing (and continuously upgraded) lines are suitable for cargo transport on an increasingly higher standard and of an increasingly greater capacity. 
High-speed rails increase the mobility of workforce and transform the internal migration of the country.  The relations between centre and periphery change: distances can be covered in shorter time (for the flow of workforce, technology and knowledge), accessibility improves, the economic integration of the country is enhanced. Towns and peripheries are positively affected by the fact that they can attract investors more easily and are less subject to the migration of workforce (releasing some of the pressure on the huokou system). They expand the market for local businesses and may bring new customers as they become more easily accessible by other companies as well. The Chinese government expects railway developments to mitigate existing regional differences. The programme promotes the growth of China’s interior regions and creates new urban centres, which generates further developments, connecting them with China’s major centres of development. Greater accessibility enhances the capability of interior and western regions to attract capital.
- While in 2013 53 percent of the population was urbanized, an expected 70 percent of the population will live in cities by 2030. Railway development ensures the connectivity of cities, reduces time spent in inter-city travel, which entails the improvement of economic productivity. All these promote the clustering of regions.
- High-speed railway facilitates the government’s effort to boost Chinese economy. Furthermore, railways can be a tool to tackle with overcapacities in the construction industry and to create jobs. 
- New Chinese railway stations usually form a part of an infrastructural urban development of a greater scale (they are typically related to the construction of new industrial and logistics parks or city quarters), which, in addition, have a multiplier effect: existing investments present added value to the environment, which is particularly important to local authorities earning great incomes for selling land. .
- High-speed railway is a relatively environmentally-friendly way of transport: it can move a high volume of people, and has a smaller environmental footprint than ways of road transport do. Theoretically, electricity may be drawn from renewable sources of energy, which is an extremely important viewpoint for the Asian country suffering from severe environmental damage. .
- It promotes the development of China’s technological and engineering skills. China imports turnkey rolling stock very rarely; and usually only 20% of spare parts are made abroad. 
- The development of high-speed rails reflects the ambitions of China’s government: to make Chinese industry catch up with the level of more developed industrial countries. In addition, high-speed rails are good export products as well, which are mainly competitive thanks to their price, arousing considerable foreign interest in recent years. .
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Viktor Eszterhai is a senior analyst at the Pallas Athene Innovation and Geopolitical Foundation (PAIGEO). He completed his Ph.D. in History at Eötvös Loránd University in 2018. Between 2014 and 2015 he was a senior scholar at Tsinghua University, Department of International Relations and in 2017 he was visiting scholar at Fudan Development Institute. His research topics are the Chinese characteristics in foreign policy; China and Central and Eastern European relations; non-western international relations theory.