All aboard as nation fast-tracks its progress

Updated: 2013-03-08 07:06

By Nick Bevens (China Daily)

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All aboard as nation fast-tracks its progress

Since moving from Edinburgh to Beijing last June, I have become a regular traveler on China's high-speed rail network, being bulleted from the capital at up to 300 km per hour to cities including Shanghai, Nanjing, Wuhan and Xi'an.

The HSR system is impeccable. Sleek carriages glide in and out of space-age stations with little delay. Crisply uniformed staff are there to help with every whim. Legroom is generous and the toilets flush perfectly.

Standard rail services for many perhaps - but a joy for someone used to British rail travel.

However, China's HSR is so much more than just shiny new steel wheels on tracks. This record-breaking project is a perfect snapshot of modern China.

The country's urbanization and internationalization processes are sure to be core issues at the two sessions, and the HSR is arguably the best combined example of both - crucial infrastructure development, using homegrown technology, to produce a quality product, which can be sold around the world.

Experts tell us that successful high-speed rail projects come down to a finely balanced mix of value for money, public need and commercial demand. If done well, they can become symbols of economies that know where they are going.

In just six years, China has gone from opening its first high-speed line to having the world's longest network, at 9,350 km.

Projects of this size, of course, are never painless. HSR's darkest moment came in July 2011 when a train collision near the eastern city of Wenzhou killed 40 and injured 170.

But construction gradually picked up again last year, and with journey times between destinations halved in most cases, a population accustomed to being away from home to work or study has seen traveling times shrink.

The 1,300km Beijing-Shanghai line last week recorded its 100-millionth passenger trip since starting in June 2012.

The network is expected to reach 18,000 km by 2015, meaning more than 8,000 km will be added over the next three years, with plans to expand this to 50,000 km by 2020.

There have been complaints that prices are too high, it has cost too much to build, but in a report just published, the World Bank said the system is having a dramatic effect on China's modernization process.

It said the program "is changing the dynamic of travel", with more people already using HSR than flying. But equally important, it emphasized how business relationships between top tier and regional cities had improved.

Gerald Ollivier, the World Bank's senior infrastructure specialist, used the example of Zhengzhou in Henan province, on the Beijing-Guangzhou line. In the past, on a three-hour conventional train a potential 3 million people from the cities of Anyang, Xinxiang and Handan could reach Zhengzhou, he said.

"Today, on this new high-speed line, that number will surge to 28 million from eight cities. The impact in terms of economic exchanges, accessibility and productivity gains are expected to be significant, and extend beyond traditional transport savings."

China's HSR is becoming a welcome international story too, at a time when more traditional export industries are struggling. Chinese know-how has already been used on a high-speed network in Turkey, and cooperation contracts signed with countries including Russia, Thailand, Brazil and Britain.

Many of the West's old ideas, stereotypes and prejudices about Chinese industry still prevail: mistrust of products, claims of unfair government subsidies and inadequate regulation, dismissals of quality, and accusations of technical imitation rather than genuine innovation.

But critics would do well to look no further than China's HSR network as an example of this country at its best.

Nick Bevens is a senior copy editor with China Daily.

(China Daily 03/08/2013 page6)