Japan Railway & Transport Review No. 57 (p36-p41)

Feature : Expansion of High–speed Rail Services
Development of High–speed Railways in China

Kiyoharu Takagi


The rapid developments seen recently in high–speed railways in China are astonishing. The lengths and speeds of lines in operation have already surpassed Japan’s high–speed rail operation, making China’s high–speed network number one in the world. As someone who has played a part in the development of high–speed rail in China, I would like to explain that development, its details and necessity, as well as the factors behind technological developments, station positioning, and urban planning, etc.

State of High–speed Railway Development

China’s high–speed railway construction plan was announced in 2004 as a mid-to-long-term rail network plan. The plan has since been reviewed and adjusted, but at the end of October 2010, it consists of the network shown in Figure 1 and Table 3. The plan is to have more than 13,000 km of track by 2012, and 20,000 km or more by 2020.
Furthermore, the high–speed railway network, with trains running in excess of 200 km/h, already covers about 4900 km in 14 sections, making it the longest in the world. As part of this high–speed network, the sections offering high–speed services of 350 km/h (five sections in Table 1) are the fastest in the world. Moving into 2011, two more ultra-high–speed lines will be added by the opening of the Beijing–Shanghai (1318 km) and Beijing–Wuhan (1119 km) lines.

Necessity for High–speed Railways

To help understand the railway system in China, Table 2 compares China and Japan. Although the comparisons are from 2008 and China’s rail network is still small, the table shows that the limited rail network is used heavily to provide both freight and passenger services. Compared to Japan, China has a vast inland region, thus China’s freight transportation ratio is high, meaning railway expansion is a big factor in China’s economic development. Again, judging from railway density, population, and number of cities, we can see that major cities in China are linked together in the same way as they are in Japan. So even seen from the perspective of passenger transport, building of high–speed railways and intercity lines between neighbouring cities and urban lines must be sustained to maintain present and future economic development.
In any event, China needed to bolster its rail capacity for economic development, so the national 1997 Ninth Five-Year Plan decreed that existing lines should be speeded up, which was achieved to reach a maximum speed of 160 km/h for passenger trains by the fifth speed-up in April 2004. However, it was presumed that overseas technologies would be needed for the sixth speed-up on 18 April 2007 (final year of scheme), so high–speed trains from Japan, France, and Canada were introduced, and a maximum speed of 200 km/h (250 km/h on some sections) was reached by the sixth speed-up.
Nevertheless, as the prime objective of China’s railway system was to transport freight and passengers over long distances, construction of new lines was imperative in order to drastically increase transportation capacity. First, to strengthen freight carriage on existing lines, passenger-only lines were constructed alongside existing lines to transport passengers separately. Next, intercity rail links were built to transport passengers within cities and out to the suburbs in areas that until then had lagged behind in terms of rail services. The results can be seen in Figure 1 and Table 3, which show China’s high–speed railway status.
In the case of Japan’s Tokaido and San’yo shinkansen, the tracks stretch 1180 km, with eleven 1-million-plus cities en route and up to 100 million people living near the line. Naturally, a densely populated area like this needs a high–speed passenger dedicated line. With the population along the Beijing–Shanghai line said to be 300 million people, it is logical for China to have a high–speed railway network ten times or so the size of Japan’s. Moreover, in comparison to Japan, China’s inner-city and intercity railways lag way behind, but China is working rapidly to rectify this situation.

Table 1:  Overview of Ultra High–speed (9250km/h) Lines
Table 2:  China–Japan Comparisons
Table 3:  China’s High–speed Railway Construction (October 2010)
Figure 1:  China’s High–speed Railway Construction Plan
Photo:  High–speed trains based on Japanese technology transfers (JARTS)

Development of High–speed Railway Technologies

Essentially, China’s national policy is to make its own products. With respect to construction of high–speed railways, China first set out to build its own high–speed lines. In order to do this, it studied high–speed railway technologies from around the world, and trial manufactured two proprietary designs for 300-km/h operation (a locomotive hauled train and a distributed-traction type electric train) as well as building a 50-km, high–speed passenger-only test track from Qinhuangdao to Shenyang, where overseas and domestic technologies were introduced and trains built and tested. Japan’s slab track technology was introduced here using published technical data without assistance from Japan. However, in the end, Japan was asked to provide technical support. In any event, China’s approach is to trial produce necessary products at least once, and then to technical support. In any event, China’s approach is to trial produce necessary products at least once, and then to procure technical guidance, in order to make the technology their own.
Nevertheless, China realized that it could not meet its own construction speed goals using this approach, so intra-governmental revisions were made in 2002, and vital technologies were introduced from leading overseas nations. At the time, high–speed railways around the world fell into two camps: the German and French locomotive (concentrated traction) system, and the Japanese shinkansen (distributed traction) system. China opted to use the distributed-traction system, and as a result, nearly all the world’s high–speed railways have taken distributed traction as their standard.
The main technical imports from abroad include carriages, signalling/transport management and ballast-less tracks. For carriage technology, China introduced models based on the Swedish high–speed commuter train, Regina (built by Bombardier of Canada), the JR East Hayate E2-1000 (built by Kawasaki Heavy Industries) and the German ICE3 (built by Siemens). The method involves modifying the designs to suit Chinese needs in areas such as body width and interior fittings. Thus, only a few completed trains are imported. Ultimately, of all models introduced, about 20% of the parts are made in the countries of origin and the other 80% are made in China under licence. These trains are in service on high–speed (350 km/h) sections shown in Table 1. Furthermore, a new train locally revised and capable of 380 km/h has been launched on the Shanghai–Hangzhou line opened on 26 October 2010. Likewise, a speed of 380 km/h is scheduled for the line opening between Beijing and Shanghai in 2011.
For ballast-less tracks, China introduced Japanese slab track as well as three systems from Germany. A test track was built using each system and all the technologies were mastered to create the Chinese systems. All four systems are now in use on rail lines nationwide, according to their special attributes.
In a mere 10 years or so, China has studied data in the public domain, introduced principal technologies from foreign nations, nurtured its own railway industry, and is developing that industry further. Technologies are managed centrally using the required test tracks. These technologies are now being adopted one after another in high–speed railway construction across the country.
Having joined the high–speed rail business later than others, China has made the most of the benefits derived from starting late to combine various developments in individual technologies (such as speed control technology, which has advanced rapidly in recent years) to raise speed limits imposed by train and track combinations. China is already conducting R&D into a train that will run at 400 km/h or more in the near future. I look forward to seeing how this turns out, because the ample infrastructure for this project currently under construction suggests that the speed limit bar will be raised again.

Station Positioning and Urban Development

At the start, the Wuhan–Guangzhou passenger line opened in December 2009 had 18 stations, of which only Guangzhou North Station incorporated the existing station into the new one. All the others are new stations. Even the two termini at Wuhan Station (there was no Wuhan Station on the old line) and at Guangzhou South Station are both new. With 15 platforms and 28 tracks, Guangzhou South Station is the biggest in Asia. It was built on farmland well away from the city centre, but it is not just the enormous size of the station that stands out. There are other development plans for the surrounding area, such as a station-front plaza and a car park. In the future, there is also a plan to build a subway to link the city with the station, making it the southern hub of Guangzhou City and stimulating further development. Likewise, other new stations are involved in similar plans, with stations becoming focal points of urban development, which will transform them into fully fledged urban locales.
Due to China’s dual urban and rural registration systems, it is impossible to transfer family registration freely. For this reason, cities are crammed full of rural citizens drawn by work prospects but who are not on urban family registers, which has become a social problem. One approach to resolving this problem involves accelerating urban development so that urban areas around cities increase to absorb the influx of rural citizens, who will be placed on urban family registries as part of the process of absorbing them. Against this background and because farmland can be bought easily and construction speed is fast, there has been a sharp increase in the number of new stations springing up around the country.

Photo:  Laying (left) and completed (right) test slab track (JARTS)

Advantages of Public Land Ownership

In China, all land is owned publicly but is managed by provincial governments. Under this system, approval can be given for leasing or selling/buying land. However, that said, there is no way a provincial government would give such approval to a private individual wanting to build a home. Instead, approval is offered on public-works land either to villages or entire regions that are prepared to enter into projects to develop regions or likewise build roads and railway lines, etc., or to private developers who want to carry out large-scale development. Therefore, when deciding to approve the land usage, the provincial government considers its own urban development plans and provides guidance, meaning that large-scale urban development can move ahead more effectively and speedily than in Japan. Moreover, land leasing provides tax revenue that boosts local government finances, so provincial governments are keen to lease out land—in other words to turn land over to development schemes; land usage fees are determined at the discretion of the provincial government. Thus, when it comes to development along a newly constructed railway line, the provincial government can obtain the money brought by rises in land prices as a result of railway construction in advance. Further, this money can then be used to repay debts created by the railway construction. In Japan of the past, big private railway companies joined together to build lines and develop the surrounding areas, taking a lot of time (10 years or more). By contrast, in China, the same kind of projects are now being implemented easily and, what is more, on a grand scale.

Photo:  Visualization of Guangzhou South Station (JARTS)

Construction of high–speed railways in China is essential from the perspective of the massive Chinese population, the locations of cities, and the development of the economy. Construction will result in ever-greater human movement, development of new urban areas along the rail lines, and massive economic benefits. It is hoped that the increasing urban population will help rectify the economic disparities between rural and urban citizens, an issue of great concern in China. Although I am not sure which way things will go, I watch these railway developments with interest.

Kiyoharu Takagi
Dr Takagi is an Executive Vice President of Japan Railway Technical Service (JARTS). He joined Japan Railway Construction Public Corporation after earning his BSc degree from Hokkaido University in 1966. He joined JARTS in April 1994, and earned his doctorate in English in March 2005.