China Promotes Its Transcontinental Ambitions with Massive Rail Plan

» China intends to extend its high-speed rail system towards south Asia and Europe with the goal of two-day journey times between London and Beijing.

If China weren’t already halfway through the construction of the world’s largest high-speed rail network, it would be difficult to take this proposal seriously. But the most populated country on earth has shown no deficit of skill recently in undertaking massive public works projects, and its ambitions — and willingness to finance them — show no sign of slowing.

So the news that China is planning a series of transcontinental high-speed rail lines designed to connect London to Beijing in just two days that broke yesterday in the South China Morning Post should be taken at face value. The proposal, which is mapped out above according to preliminary information about proposed alignments, would likely be the largest infrastructure project — ever. Taking the growing Chinese rail network as the starting point, new 200 mph lines would extend south towards Singapore, north and west into Siberia, and west through India, Kazakhstan, and Turkey, with the eventual goal of linking into the growing European fast train system.

Exact routes are not yet determined, but the general goal of the plan is to increase the region’s mobility through fast rail networks and to join together the mostly disconnected Asian and European systems.

Government officials in China plan to use this project to expand the country’s base of natural resources. Negotiations are already underway with 17 countries, premised on the idea that China would spend its own money building the rail links in exchange for resources it currently lacks. According to Wang Mengshu, a consultant working on the project, “We would actually prefer the other countries to pay in natural resources rather than make their own capital investment.”

China has already agreed to finance a rail link into Myanmar in exchange for the rights to that country’s lithium reserves. Russia and China have announced plans to build a new trans-Siberian link. Iran, Pakistan, and India are each negotiating with China to build domestic rail lines that would link into the overall transcontinental system.

It’s a sort of neo-imperialism desired by the countries to be colonized. Will they regret the selling off of their natural resources in exchange for better transportation offerings? Is this reasonable foreign investment on the part of China, or is it an attempt to take control of the economies of poor countries?

The strategy can’t be more clear: China wants to establish itself as the center of Asian trade, the hub of the world’s largest market. By developing the economies of Cental Asian and Eastern European countries that have missed out on the enormous growth currently being experienced by China, the region will experience increasing trade and development, a result that will in turn aid in expanding the Chinese economy. It would allow China to solidify its position as the dominant player in the Asian economy, with the goal of eliminating any hopes of increasing American or European influence there.

Though China’s economy continues to grow at an unbelievable pace, its slow-growth demographics resulting from the one-child policy mean that it must focus its efforts abroad if it wants to continue expansion into the future.

Despite China’s history of following through with its big rail plans, building a 17-country network is quite different than upgrading just its own lines. Some major problems, like track gauge differences and differing visa requirements, stand in the way of ever completing the project. If they get their way, however, Chinese officials want to complete the project in ten years. It’s an outrageous — and exciting — objective.

63 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Stirner

    Wouldn’t these lines make much more sense as double stack freight rail corridors? That would seem to support the flow of goods and natural resources much better. Full electrification of the freight lines could come as a second phase, if oil scarcity makes that necessary.

    HSR passenger rail seems nonsensical across central asia. As a strategy to expand Chinese influence and exclusive access to natural resources, I must admit there is a certain cleverness to it.

    • Bob L.

      Almost all of China’s rail is electrified with a minimum of double tracks now on its main lines.

      The U.S. of A. is doing everything it can to kill rail and good highway construction to move goods.

      “This needs to be plastered all across the US media, but I’m sure that it’s not.”

      We don’t want to hear this, we only want to hear our iPods and play video games as the rest of the world is passing us buy as we slip behind the third world counties of today in commerce and everything else.

  • DBX

    And why aren’t we proposing similar connections with Latin America?

    Oh yes, we’re broke, devoid of any greater vision than our next tax deduction, and China already took out options on their natural resources too.

    It’s now only a matter of time before we’re a distant second fiddle, and this is just one more indication of it.

    The Chinese will find a way of building simply what they need and no more (i.e. just double-stack in the outback), and extracting maximum payment for it.

  • Andy K

    I remember going to a megaprojects talk given by a guy from Bechtel about 10 years ago talking about something like this. He was saying how the South Korean HSR project would link to Europe eventually. This was pre-China HSR.

  • NCarlson

    I’m somewhat surprised they aren’t talking about something in the Bering Strait as well…

    I also have to agree that some clarification is in order; an electrified, high quality network focussed on freight and carrying high speed trains makes a lot of sense, passenger HSR on all these lines though?

  • AlexB

    Wow. They really are planning to take over Asia.

    Interesting how these routes completely avoid Afghanistan. I’d think the line from Delhi to Lahore would go to Islamabad and Kabul on it’s way to Tehran and on to London.

    I would hope these lines would be primarily used for freight instead of just passengers. Being able to transport cargo in two days from Beijing to London on an electric train would revolutionize both the cost and environmental impact of freight transportation. I find it highly doubtful that passengers would ever ride this more than 1000 miles absolute maximum.

    A Bering Strait tunnel combined with a S Korea-Japan tunnel could eventually do the same for moving freight from Asia to N America. The key would be building all the nuclear power plants and wind farms to power all these trains.

    • Andy K

      Ships are much cheaper for freight than rail.

    • John W

      “I find it highly doubtful that passengers would ever ride this more than 1000 miles absolute maximum.”

      Actually, that could be an ideal distance for sleeper trains. Beijing-Hong Kong is roughly 1225 miles, which at 150mph average works out at just over 8 hours. NYC-Miami and NYC-St Louis (via Chicago) are in the same ballpark, while for, say, Atlanta-NYC you’d need to slow things down to an average of 110mph to ensure a full night’s sleep. Around 1500 miles and you’d have time for a nice dinner and a nightcap on board before being gently rocked to sleep.

      Even if it was priced the same as the equivalent flight, the trip costs would still work out cheaper: you could have a full weekend in New York and only have to pay for one night’s hotel bill.

      It might also be popular for business travellers – instead of getting up at 5am to get to the airport, and then on arrival fret about how long the taxi is taking in rush hour traffic, you’d roll off the train in Manhattan refreshed and with time for breakfast before that morning meeting.

      (I’m not suggesting that a 1000 mile line with no intermediate stops would be at all cost effective, but if you’re building it to connect a line of major cities anyway, you may as well take full advantage of it).

  • Mason Hicks

    This needs to be plastered all across the US media, but I’m sure that it’s not. China is seeing to value of creating transit cooridors and is thereby sticking their flag in the sand to stake their claim to vital resources that will be needed to replace oil. They are therby cutting us out of the very resources that we will need to move forward. This is pure brilliance on their part. Allthewhile the folks at home in the US are still trying to come to grips with the value of spending capital on our domestic transit infrastructure. This is huge news. I hop that we’re awake.

  • greg

    I admire the ambition, but this idea of building a transcontinental high-speed rail from Asia to Europe is nonsensical, to say the least. There would be long stretches of sparsely-populated areas along this proposed line or numerous poor, developing countries that it would pass through. Is this economically viable?

    It would make more sense to build a conventional railway that can both transport freight and passengers. Even that is not possible in fifty years – we’re talking about-how many countries involved?- crossing 17 countries!

    • John W

      Most of these routes already exist as conventional rail already – the Trans-Siberian since World War I. It’s just that it takes about 9 days to travel London–Beijing. I think you can do it needing only to change trains three times (in Paris, Berlin and Moscow, for instance). I’ve always wanted to travel the Trans-Siberian (6-7 days depending on routing – The Man in Seat 61 has a good write-up of the options).

      The shortest route, the Trans-Mongolian would drop from 6 days to 32 hours if the average speed of the journey was kept to 150mph for the 4800-mile route. Can you imagine – get on board in Moscow at bedtime, spend the next day watching the taiga and steppes whizzing past and wander around Tiananmen Square the following morning. It would definitely lack the ‘romance’ and camaraderie of the existing journey though.

      So there’s definitely potential for demand well in excess of 1000 miles – backpackers and adventurers currently willing to do the trip much more slowly (unless they’d be put off by the modernity!), and presumably the current clientele of Russians and Chinese if prices stay low relative to airfares.

  • Russell Warshay

    Who will maintain these corridors?

  • dejv

    Yonah, the Kashmir Railway isn’t connected to the rest of IR network and the Bam-Zahedan gap has already been closed.

    Stirner, double-stack is AFAIK impossible on ex-Soviet network, due to lower loading gauge (albeit higher than standard-gauge Europe) and extensive electrification that was on Transsib completed quite recenty (in 2002).

    NCarlson, I wouldn’t expect serious Bering Straight crossing proposal from Russia or China until there’s fixed link connecting Alaska to Canadian and US network.

  • Andrew Lynch

    Seems China has just taken a page from Daniel Burnham’s book: “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will not themselves be realized.”

    Beijing to London in 2 days? Sounds like the setting for the next generation of ‘Murder on the Orient Express’.

  • The break of gauge issue at the borders with India and Russia would be a big problem. So would coordination with other nations’ plans. For example, Russia is planning to upgrade speeds on the Trans-Siberian; a transcontinental HSR network would probably not detour through Astana and Ulan Bator.

    Russia may not support double-stacked freight, but India does. In fact it supports it better than North America: its broad gauge gives its trains more stability, allowing them to run double-stacked containers on ordinary flatcars instead of special well cars.

    Whatever this is, it’s not going to be economic development. China’s intentions are probably the same as Britain’s intentions when it built an Indian rail network: development oriented toward colonialism. China is already developing colonial relations with some countries in Africa, Latin America, and Central Asia.

    • James D

      I think this is why they’re trying to push standard gauge on countries in central Asia. Once they can reach Mashhad, then it’s only the completion of the Bosphorus tunnel and somehow getting around Lake Van that stops a Chinese train from running to Europe.

      • dejv

        Even then route through Russia will remain shorter and way less hilly – the only mountains between Dostyk and Germany is low Ural range, while all the way from Mashad to Germany goes through rugged Alpides. There are also two broad gauge lines piercing the standard gauge territory in in Slovakia and in Poland, should any of them be extended to any terminal close enough to Germany, the niche for link via Iran would be very small.

        However, this is kind of Big Game. Russia will do everything to keep it’s landbridge monopoly while China certainly won’t like it and Iran would like to get its share from this bussiness. Kazach Raiways announced their plans for standard gauge link six years ago, no fresh news about that link surfaced since then.

        Even if the all-standard gauge rail link is put together, there’s one devilish detail: incompatible couplers. China uses AAR coupler, ex-Soviet countries, some Iranian trains and some heavy-duty european lines use SA-3 and the rest of European standard-gauge network buffers and chain.

      • Nathanael

        Europe is overdue for a coupler change (buffers and chain is INSANE in this day and age). I suspect something will cause a big change there, and China will either switch to SA-3 or Europe to AAR, or someone will devise a tricky multisystem SA-3/AAR coupler.

        The push for the standard gauge link is big. Once the route around Lake Van is done, the major gap is from Iran to China. Pakistan actually proposed standard gauge conversion. Either Pakistan or India could do three-rail dual-gauge, standard and Indian; Russia can’t because its gauge is too close to standard gauge. Alternatively the Central Asian route could be taken, and of course that requires gauge conversion in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Uzbekistan is also in poor political shape at the moment. Afghanistan has to be completely avoided, of course.

      • dejv

        Buffers and chain might be insane but it’s not bad enough to make operators want it replaced. You know, locomotives and cars are ready for central coupler since early 1970′s (timeline; scharfenberg coupled to hook via adapter), it’s possible just to come, unscrew hook & chain and screw new coupler in place. It didn’t happen in those 40 years. Probably because of huge costs and benefits limited by maximum train length of 750 m. Switch of either Russia and China is even less likely.

        I just can’t see bussiness case for standard gauge link. The direct link involves at least 2000-3000 km of new track just to go through mountainous, possibly unfriendly energy-scarce (it doesn’t have refineries for its oil), equally mountainous Turkey with Marmaray tunnel that’s very likely to be congested by passengers train, again mountainous Bulgaria to get to Hungary, first country where the containers could be transferred to trucks or other trains to reach their destination. Russian route doesn’t look that bad then, the half day you lose by transfering to broad gauge can be more that made up by shorter and straigter route, possibly allowing 120 km/h right away through all broad gauge territory except Ural range, Belarus and LHS.

        • Nathanael

          Po-li-tics. China wants a route which doesn’t go through Russia, period. Most traffic would probably end up going through Russia, but they want the alternative in order to have the *power*. They figure they can deal with the mess of little countries, but are subject to blockading and monopoly pricing from Russia.

  • Brendan

    If India and SE Asia were to ever be tied into a Mid-East and Europe network that would practically require passage through Iran. Yikes.

    • Wad

      Ahmadinejad notwithstanding, Iran wouldn’t be the biggest worry along such a line.

      Pakistan, Kashmir and Afghanistan would be the real danger zones. In the Middle East, the most perilous zones would be in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Israel and its neighbors.

      • James D

        The traditional route from Europe to Persia (Iran) includes just one intermediate country: Turkey. There aren’t any security risks there, although there is a serious risk of earthquakes. As for going east, the map in the OP shows how to do it: via Tashkent. It’s a shame that the route proposed isn’t more direct between Tashkent and Beijing though.

      • francis

        Me thinks that once these places are tied in to the railway and become economically prosperous, they won’t be danger zones anymore.

      • The railway wouldn’t make them economically prosperous any more than the first wave of railway building did in the 19th century.

    • China doesn’t regard Iran as a pariah state; only the US and its allies do. The plan is careful to avoid Afghanistan and Iraq, which are internationally considered danger zone and which air carriers avoid overflying, or at least avoided in the past.

      • AlexB

        every other country might not regard iran as a pariah state, but that doesn’t mean anyone likes or trusts them. maybe venezuela.

    • dejv

      Such link already exists. It doesn’t seem to be used as a landbridge though as no of respective companies market it.

      • Nathanael

        That’s not a complete link. Kazakhstan did link into China, but with gauge-changers. They moved the gauge-change point well into Kazakhstan, and it appears they were actually constructing the standard-gauge to Aktogai (as noted in the linked article).

        However, the proposal to link it to Iran hasn’t been executed yet, largely because it has to go through Turkmenistan (which is a MESS). There was no commitment from Turkmenistan so it didn’t happen.

      • Nathanael

        They’ve just got funding for the link through Turkmenistan. Just now.

        http://www.railwaygazette.com/news/single-view/view//caspian-rail-corridor-funds-agreed.html

        Not clear whether it’s still planned as a standard gauge link.

      • dejv

        Brendan talked about Europe-India link, that is complete now. The link could certainly help, but therere are still thousands km left, most of that don’t even have broad-gauge line now (Beyneu – Aralsk – Mointy section, see map).

  • Mad Park

    Sarah Palin would NEVER let them come across the Bering Strait

  • Brett

    And for us USA residents, we need the right paperwork to just get into Russia. I have no clue how passport control would work. Nor visa requirements. Politically (and we’re talking international politics) it just won’t work unless all visa requirements are dropped.

    • Passport control would probably work the same way as it did on international trains in Europe before border controls were lifted. There would be border inspectors from each country boarding the train at the last station before each border, checking everyone’s papers on the way, and then getting off at the first station after the border.

      The real problem is the break of gauge, not the border control issue.

      • John W

        They could use variable gauge trainsets as in Spain. Or swap the bogies, as they do on the Budapest to L’viv route at Cop. (Can’t remember how long the process took – many years ago now and I think I just went back to sleep after the initial noise).

      • They use bogie swaps now at the Russian-Chinese border. It takes hours.

        Variable gauge would probably be the way to go, assuming China can develop the technology itself or steal it from Talgo. (Remember: colonial ventures are all about foisting existing national industries on new markets. Imports are incompatible with the idea.)

  • ks

    I believe gauge is not a big issue. I assume that new tracks have to be built – in accordance to Chinese standard – in order for the train to achieve 350km/h top speed. (380km/h by 2012.)

    Politics will be a hurdle, though. I doubt nations hostile to China, e.g. Russia, India, Vietnam, will support this idea.

  • Luis Morales (Spain)

    Comment: Colonialism or imperialism involves military ocupation, it can be accepted (protectorate) or not.
    Colonialism involves settlement of inmigrants.
    It seems only a trade deal.

    • Nathanael

      There are Chinese laborers in Central Asia building public works. You think they’re all going to go home?…..

  • bcat

    The high-speed rail to Urumqi is already being constructed. The work was began in November last year. See Wikipedia:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lanxin_High-Speed_Railway

    And according to the latest news, the railway will be a 1776-km long 350 km/h railway connect Lanzhou, Xining, Jiayuguan, Turpan and Urumqi. Upon its completion in 2014, it is possible to go from Beijing to Urumqi in just 12 hours.

    http://news.163.com/10/0220/14/5VVMOUR2000120GU.html (in Chinese)

  • A lot of you are just not getting it. When you build HSR you’re building a new line anyway, because the engineering requirements for passenger service are different from freight. What you’re selling is the ability to cover more distance in less time, so it becomes a positive virtue to pass through big empty areas, with no stations to slow you down. The trains operate as trainsets, and are only rarely coupled together at the outer ends, so most of your coupler issues go away. And who knows, maybe for wind and solar energy sources, the steppes are the place to be.

    This is not new territory for the Chinese. They’ve been working with the Russians for years to build transcontinental freight lines that would beat containerships to Europe.

    My own guess is that within 50 years civilian air travel will be a thing of the past, so in a sense the Chinese are just being realistic here, not visionary. It just seems visionary to those of us stuck in the century of the automobile.

    • The proposal seems pretty freight-oriented to begin with. Passengers from Beijing to Europe would probably not want to detour through Manchuria.

      • Tom

        What does Manchuria have to do with anything when you could just head over the Silk Route through Urumqi? serial catowner is exactly right, *IF* this is a proposal for true high-speed rail.

        But at the same time, Alon is right to be skeptical — it really does seem like a “pretty freight-oriented” proposal when you look at the routings. Newspaper reporters often make the rookie mistake of confusing conventional rail with high-speed rail. Heck, I’ve even read newspaper articles that described the Qinghai-Tibet railway as HSR. (Since when was 100 km/hr high-speed rail?!). A fast freight connection is just that — a fast conventional railroad.

        The SCMP newspaper article did seem to be explicitly talking about actual HSR, rather than conventional rail. But I’m disturbed by the fact that the proposal is described in the article entirely in paraphrase by the reporter. Wang Mengshu is never quoted talking explicitly about HSR. It’s a newspaper article broken in *one* newspaper, relying on information from *one* expert, without any actual direct quotes that seem relevant to HSR.

        I think it plausible that this is just a figment of the 24-hour news cycle. The SCMP is usually reliable, but I’ve seen plenty of usually-reliable news sources get rail technology completely wrong. But I can easily be convinced the other way — all it’ll take is a direct quote that directly talks about speeds and travel times, from someone who is not Wang Mengshu, in a newspaper other than the South China Morning Post.

  • OceanRailroader

    This is neat in away are the rails in China the same 4 foot 8 inch gauge like in the US and Europe if so that would be good to get rid of all the odd gauges in the middle of the two rail systems.

  • dejv

    Wien broad gauge agreement signed

    ^^^ Vienna is a big hub, well connected to mainland european highway & freeway network. Odds of “getting rid of all the odd gauges in the middle of the two” are getting somewhat lower by this move.

  • China, it seems, has a dual purpose for this planned network — facilitate movement of people, and of goods, particularly raw materials it needs.
    And might be using the old trick used by the once-colonial powers like Britain that built infrastructure in their colonies to transport material to help build their empire.

    http://blog.looktoeast.com/2010/04/10/chinese-highspeed-train-plans–superpower-ambitions.aspx

  • Ch B

    not really a trojan horse

  • cyril

    … and transport energy ?
    would it be possible to use the lines to develop a large scale energy grid ?

  • Will the network be maintained by the government

  • Ginny

    Just wondering…how long does it take to travel from Singapore to London via Sea? Does anyone know?

  • peter connell

    Firstly, whereas EuropeS answer to US domination of jetliners was Airbus, Chinas answer is, we will avoid buying them via HSR infrastructure. Maybe they are right. Jetliners are approaching their use by date given peak oil.

    Secondly, airfreight and container freight are vastly different markets, and there is currently nothing in between – a huge niche market.

    There is nothing to stop; palletized, lighter, hi value urgent, freight switching from air to HSR. They can have dedicated freighter trainsets or mix and match carriages, much the same as airfreight works now.

    Re the separate issue of heavy containers, sea freight to West coast US etc & thence the rest of the US is simple cheap and pretty fast.

    Their big problem is the lucrative EEU markets. The ships have to go way south to round singapore.

    There is talk of a canal across the narrow bit of Thailand (~ a 2000km shortcut), but an attractive looking option is a freight line to ~Mumbai (only requires a deal with one country), and trans ship on a vessel to (say)Marseilles via the suez, to hook up with the EEU rail network.

    Its all very well to say ships are most efficient, but time is of the essence usually. Why else to people pay a huge premium for air freight?

    While I am on my hobby horse, I am surprised some punter with deep pockets doesnt go into competition with the panama canal. The country just north of panama? seems to have a short, viable rail route between the oceans. Put a container port at each end, and the numbers may stack up.

  • PG

    Also someone should tell the Chinese that SIngapore has just removed its last rail connection to the outside world , by removing th old line from Johor Bahru in Malaysia to Singapore . There is no mainline rail station in Singapore now , and its too crowded now to install one , let alone the line . SO any connection will stop in Malaysia , and the only transport to Singapore city is underground trains , not exactly good fo tourism.

  • Brian

    Why don’t all countries switch to the standard gauge for seamless travel/trade?

    • Nathanael

      Ask India.

      Russia has a huge investment in Russian gauge (an enormous electrified network) and you can’t make dual-gauge Russian and Standard track without four rails. And until China builds a standard gauge link to Europe, Russia has no competition so it doesn’t care about that.

      India has a mishmash of gauges, but is standardizing on Indian broad gauge instead of standard gauge ’cause — well, I don’t know, really.

      China is clearly trying to get a standard gauge connection to Iran, which gets it a non-Russian route to the West.

      Meanwhile, all the “gauge outliers” except Russia and India are slowly going standard gauge (Spain/Portugal, Australia, various African countries, etc.)

  • Ralen

    A terrible idea.Nationalities and cultures best kept apart would cause new crime waves and conflicts, not to mention the idea of a communist brutal country gaining even more influence and wealth for itself, and a form of trickery by china to gain a sort of chinese imperialism all over Asia.And its oppressive culture with it. Plus there is enough railways already.Plus it would cause illegal immigrant promblems. There is a huge differences between nations in this region,interconnecting railways between opposite nations would threaten nations stability, something China is totally ignoring, its only heady with the idea of increased chinese wealth and influence and colonising some naive countries.

  • I think that through Mongolia which south to north is one of best way of Eurasia to Europe. Because Mongolia has one of biggest mineral resources country in the future

  • A HSR is not completely devoid freights. To make it economically feasible of course you have to include the tourist traffic. The westerners here seem just to think in terms of Beijing-London. The whole thing might sound like pie in the sky 10 years ago. But after China have built or is planning to build 4 to 5 lines of HSR each direction of east/west and north/south in China, it may not look like fantasy at all.

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