China Metro Rail

China Expands Its Investment in Rapid Transit, Paving Way for Future Urban Growth

» 1,900 miles of rapid transit planned for world’s most populated country by 2015.

Most of China’s growth is concentrated in its large urban centers, which will house fifty percent of the country’s population by 2020 and 75% by 2050. For these increasingly huge megacities, the central government has no choice but to develop adequate measures to transport the population. Following the American model of car dependence is simply not possible because of high densities and inadequate space. With its high-speed rail network, now the longest in the world, the Chinese are providing efficient intercity links into downtowns.

But it’s in urban rail networks that the country has made the biggest strides towards increasing mobility within cities. Shanghai’s huge Metro, the longest on earth, is just one among eleven currently operating in China. Dozens of other cities have rapid transit systems either under construction or in planning.

Now the central government has made a commitment to spend up to one trillion one hundred billion U.S. dollars by 2015 on such grade-separated urban public transportation corridors. This is part of a one trillion-dollar investment in urban infrastructure nationwide; China will also spend $450 billion on railway construction over the same period. By the end of this year, China will offer a total of 870 miles of metro systems, up from around 600 today, on the way to 1,900 miles in five years. Far more is planned by 2020, especially in the east coast powerhouses of Beijing, Shanghai, and the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong megaplex.

Urban infrastructure investment has consumed an average of 2.6% of China’s GDP since 1994. With a national growth rate predicted to hold at between seven and ten percent a year, the country will be able to guarantee its huge level of investment.

Total infrastructure investment across all levels of government accounts for roughly 1% of American GDP. The U.S. commits about $100 billion a year to all forms of transportation spending.

Whether China’s spending will be enough to prevent the rapid rise in car use there is unknown. Chinese’s per capita automobile ownership has increased from 24 cars per 1,000 people to 40 per 1,000, though that’s far less than the 765 cars per 1,000 people in the United States. The country’s decision to implement tolls on virtually all new highways and the use of vehicle restrictions in the central zones of cities like Shanghai and Beijing will spur more use of public transit.

China better be preparing for the future, though, when it will need to spend more rebuilding its infrastructure than constructing it anew. One hopes the Chinese have developed more stable long-term operations and maintenance funds than have those of us in North America.

Infrastructure Metro Rail Shanghai

Shanghai’s Metro, Now World’s Longest, Continues to Grow Quickly as China Invests in Rapid Transit

Click here for large (2000 px wide) version of Shanghai Metro Map

» System will carry about five million passengers a day. Dozens of other Chinese cities are spending billions of dollars on similar grade-separated transit systems.

If China’s massive investment in high-speed rail is impressive, its huge spending binge in local rapid transit is remarkable. And nowhere is that record more dramatic than in Shanghai, the world’s most populous city proper.

Just fifteen years after the first segment of its first metro line opened, the city’s metro network has gained the title as the world’s longest with the opening of a section of Line 10 last week. This followed years of continuous construction and the opening of pieces of Lines 2, 9, and 11 over the past month. In anticipation of the inauguration of the city’s Expo 2010 event on May 1st, Line 13 will open sometime in the next two weeks.

Now Shanghai offers 282 stations and 420 km (261 mi) of lines, compared to 408 km in London and 368 km in New York, which now have the world’s second and third-largest rapid transit networks. Unlike those cities, which have only minor line extensions planned, Shanghai’s expansion plans are only half complete: not only does the city have 140 km of more lines currently under construction and intended for service by 2012, but it has an additional 300 km planned to be ready for operations by 2020, by which time this city alone will have more rapid transit mileage than the entire country of Japan.

The Shanghai Metro is now capable of handling about five million passengers a day; the system is likely to become the world’s most-used, passing Tokyo and Moscow, by the time the full construction program is complete.

Beijing is pursuing a similarly extension metro expansion project, but these cities aren’t alone: twelve Chinese municipalities currently have rapid transit, nineteen more have systems under construction, and an additional seventeen new networks are in planning. The national government has committed $150 billion to the projects by 2015, though additional funds originate from the municipalities themselves, such as the progressive and independent City of Shanghai. It’s a country-wide investment in urban transportation unparalleled in human history.

The American government, managing a much wealthier country than China, typically commits about two billion dollars a year to transit capital projects nationwide.

China’s aggressive efforts are a response to the country’s rapid urbanization, which has brought tens of millions of rural peasants into the cities as a result of increasing economic development. Though the Chinese automobile market is now larger than that of the United States, when compared on a per capita basis, it is still relatively small, especially considering that most Chinese car purchases are of first vehicles, not second or third, as are typical American consumer investments. This means that these quickly growing cities must respond with significant spending on improved public transportation — and they’ve chosen rapid transit as their preferred technology.

Specifically, Shanghai’s effort is an attempt to avoid American-style commuting habits even as its population increases in prosperity. With a per capita GDP three times the national average, Shanghai must endeavor to ensure that its growing number of middle-class inhabitants don’t clog the streets with their cars.

The European and North American experience shows that it can be done: In the first half of the 20th century, cities like New York, Berlin, and London reacted to a growing population and densification of land use by constructing extensive rapid transit networks and the results today are cities with high rates of public transportation use in spite of wealthy populations; Shanghai is likely to follow in the same mold.

But the extent and rapidity by which Shanghai is expanding its system reinforces the high-speed rail-driven sense that the West is falling behind, at least in infrastructure investment. Though no American and European cities are growing as quickly as their Chinese counterparts, there are significant demands for transportation improvements that are being unmet in virtually every major Western metropolitan region, with the possible exception of Madrid, Barcelona, and Paris, which are all spending billions to extend their transit networks out of the traditional urban core and into near suburbs. These neighborhoods have for years been deprived of adequate public transportation despite a real demand; most regions, however, aren’t spending on new line capacity.

Unlike the U.S. or Europe, China benefits from strong economic growth, making these investments more feasible, especially since construction costs are lower. Nonetheless, if Shanghai’s construction is so extensive as to be impossible to replicate in the more affluent parts of the world, current efforts in most major American and European cities are modest, doing very little in terms of transportation to respond to significant increases in population since the first half of the 20th century. They’re not making much of an effort to prepare for their increasingly urban futures by building new transit links.

China is.

Image my own work but based on standard Shanghai Metro Map.

China High-Speed Rail

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.

China High-Speed Rail

New Wuhan-Guangzhou Rail Route Shatters Average Speed Records

» A comparison of long-distance high-speed rail routes puts China’s accomplishment in perspective.

What makes high-speed rail so remarkable is its ability to move people so quickly from one place to another, and that, of course, requires high average running speeds. In the U.S., even the fastest train — the Acela Express that travels between Boston and Washington, capable of 150 mph — averages only about 80 mph on its 450-mile journey. As has been discussed previously on these pages, while the ability to reach higher and higher speeds is an important element of rail system success, the ability to maintain those speeds is what matters most.

Even on the fastest rail lines, average speeds have come nowhere close to meeting top speeds on trips between major cities; this is typically a result of required slow-downs in urban areas and at stops and tight curves through difficult terrain. Many “high-speed” lines also contain many sections that have not yet been upgraded to the highest standards, forcing trains to run more slowly along them.

Today, the fastest scheduled journey between two cities on any high-speed route in the world is on the TGV Est in France between Champagne and Lorraine stations, a distance of 168 km completed at an average speed of 279.3 km/h. But that connection is just a small section of the overall line; much of the rest of the route features far lower average travel times. Many “high-speed” rail journeys throughout the world offer similarly quick segments with the rest of the line operating far more slowely.

Indeed, the fact that high-speed rail rarely means high-speed throughout the route makes the opening of China’s new line between Wuhan and Guangzhou, which has been under construction since 2005, particularly notable. The corridor is almost 1,000 km long and trains are able to travel at their maximum speeds basically from beginning to end.

According to Chinese officials, trains will be able to traverse the 968 km route in just four three hours, averaging 328 242 km/h,* about three-fourths of the trains’ technologically imposed maximum operating speed of 395 km/h. This is compared to a 10h30 travel time on the older track.

At similar speeds, commuters could get between Boston and Washington in about three and a half hours or between New York and Chicago in less than five. Service of that speed would provoke an enormous mode shift towards rail transport — exactly what China is likely to experience now.

Comparing Long-Distance High-Speed Rail Routes
Line Distance Travel Time Avg Speed
China: Wuhan-Guangzhou 968 km 2h57 328 km/h
Spain: Cordoba-Barcelona 966 km 4h42 206 km/h
France: Lille-Marseille 959 km 4h40 206 km/h
Italy: Turin-Naples 900 km 5h45 157 km/h
USA: Boston-Newport News 1034 km 12h35 82 km/h

As evidenced by the above table, China’s new line provides quantitative speed advanages over some of the fastest trips of similar distances in Spain, France, and Italy — not to mention the U.S.

Tests on the corridor in early December 9th pushed the Siemens Velaro trainsets used by the state railway to up to 395 km/h. That makes them the fastest production trains in the world, though a modified TGV reached 572 km/h in 2007.

The Chinese government is capable of such audacious average speeds because, more than any other country on the world, it is engaging actively to invest in its infrastructure needs for the next century — its commitment earlier this year to $200 billion for high-speed rail outmatches any previous investment in rail in the history of the world.

Unlike Western countries, which tend to prioritize the preservation of existing city centers and which are willing to alter routes dramatically to respond to citizen concerns, Chinese officials can ram through huge, invasive infrastructure projects virtually anywhere. In general, this means Chinese trains are able to accelerate more quickly and maintain their top running speeds even in heavily populated areas.

There is good evidence that investors in new rail lines have a strong incentive to push trains to the fastest-possible average speeds despite the fact that doing so provokes considerable local opposition. After years of growth, South Korea’s high-speed KTX line is suffering from declining ridership after the opening of a direct metro link to the Seoul Airport, despite the train system’s relatively low fares. Competing economy air routes offer faster service that’s just as convenient; any new rail corridor in the U.S. will immediately face similar competitors, so there is a strong motivation to keep travel time differences to a minimum.

KTX hopes to regain many of those travelers with a new fast link opening to Busan next year that will increase average speeds and decrease travel times to just 2h10 between the cities.

China’s advances suggest that high-speed rail has yet to meet its technological limitations and that countries like the United States, only now spending on rail, would benefit from finding ways to speed new train lines even more quickly.

* Note: Some reports have claimed that the Wuhan-Guangzhou route is 1,070 km long and that it will be served by trains completing the route in just three hours. Wrong. The first number is the mileage of the line this new, shorter route replaces; the second is the travel time of a test train that ran the route non-stop earlier in the month (at an astonishing average speed of 323 km/h) — regular trains will take a still-admirable four hours to make the journey.

Update, 27 December: I’m sorry I reported this story incorrectly earlier. These trains will indeed be able to complete this journey in just three hours, solidifying the route’s fastest-in-the-world status. The claim of some Chinese officials that this line is 1,070 km long, however, seems to be inaccurate, as reported previously. According to ARCADIS, an engineering group working on the project, the line is 935 km long, with a 350 km/h design speed; Structurae notes that the line distance is 968 km, the number I use here. Conclusion: trains are actually averaging 328 km/h or less on the line, not the 350 km/h China is advertising. This makes sense considering that Siemens’ Velaro trainsets being used on the line are only designed for 350 km/h maximum commercial operation. There is a bit of misinformation being spread here.

Beijing China High-Speed Rail Shanghai

Beijing-Shanghai HSR Link to Average Speeds of Over 200 mph

Railway Ministry announces trip will take less than four hours, versus previously announced five.

China’s Beijing-Shanghai high-speed connection, which is the most important link in the country’s ambitious rail plans, will be faster than previously announced when it fully opens in 2013. The project was designed from the start for trains capable of 217 mph top speeds, but the government estimated total trip time of five hours on the 819 mile corridor, which would have meant average speeds of 164 mph on the whole line, a bit above typical for a corridor of this type. The country has now announced that its ambitions are even larger, and that trains will average over 200 mph to make the trip in less than four hours.

What’s significant about this announcement is that it means that trains will be moving at speeds higher than the 217 mph initially proposed for the major parts of the trip, making this by far the fastest conventional high-speed line in the world when it opens. The decrease in travel time from five hours to four also will allow trains to take a far higher percentage of the market share on China’s most important intercity link. Though three hours is typically seen as the time barrier under which trains can take travel share from airlines, a four hour trip on this corridor will make it a very popular choice for a link that already carries 10 percent of the country’s rail traffic. A trip between the cities today takes around 12 hours by rail.

The distance between Beijing and Shanghai is roughly equivalent to that between New York and Chicago.

China’s Railway Ministry sees its investment in new corridors as an essential way to avoid congestion as the country develops. China only has 1/50th of the number of airports as the U.S., but its high-speed railway network, measuring up to 7,000 miles by 2020, will be the longest in the world.

Beijing’s increased confidence in its capacity to deliver what amounts to the world’s most advanced high-speed corridor will be buoyed by a favorable stock market reaction, because the country is likely to list a holding company controlling the corridor on the stock market. Doing so would allow China to raise further funds for fast rail expansion, making this corridor only the first among many.