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High speed rail takes off: Focus on China

July 22, 2011
Author: Eve-Marie Morgo

By 2050, a complete European high-speed rail network will be in place, with triple the current length of track by 2030. This dense network in all EU member states will mean that by 2050, the majority of medium distance travel should be done by rail. In addition, by 2050 the authors wish to see all core network airports connected to the rail network, preferably high speed. It’s seamless travel, the Total Rail journey.

But we don’t have to wait 40 years to see high-speed rail take off. It’s already happening today with investment in projects the world over flourishing.   

Most recently, and to great fanfare, China opened its flagship stretch of high speed track, on which passengers are propelled from Beijing to Shanghai, and vice versa, in record time and at 300 km/h. But this is only one very small part of a huge puzzle. Indeed, China is well on its way to housing the world’s most extensive high speed rail network. The country is already half way through constructing its 16,000 km behemoth, which will be complete in 2020, and will by then have cost $300billion.

But, it’s not been all plain sailing. Even before it was up and running, the track was criticised for being too expensive, with ticket prices far too high for the average wage earner.

And since inauguration, it has been beset with technical problems, adding to suspicions that the project was rushed through in time for the Communist’s Party 90th anniversary celebrations. Indeed, trains suffered two power cuts in three days, leaving passengers stranded in sweltering heat and the second cut forcing travellers into a back-up train.

But as the saying goes, one man’s pain, is another man’s gain. Prior to the opening of the track, many predicted that the bullet trains would take a large chunk out of the airlines’ marketshare on the same route. And indeed, in the first couple of weeks, tickets were being sold at a 36% discount. But now, airlines are profiting from rail’s woes and the recent troubles have redressed the balance in the airlines’ favour and it’s now hard to find tickets with even 20% off the full fare. 

Nevertheless, such hiccups will not dent Chinese ambitions. Not content with high speed technology at home, China is also looking to export its expertise abroad and has shown interest in bidding for contracts relating to the construction of the proposed West Midlands line, for example. And in Brazil, Chinese groups are eying a $10 billion project.

The Chinese are already hard at work in Turkey, where they are helping to build a 158km stretch of High Speed track. Engineers from the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation see the project as a springboard to other projects in Europe. The construction comes after Turkey and China agreed to work together to build 7,000kms of rail line across Turkey by 2023, with China lending in the region of $28 to $30 billion to finance several high speed train projects aiming to connect all four corners of the country.

Projects like this demonstrate just how much importance is being placed on high speed Rail. Governments from USA to China, from Australia to Brazil, all see the benefits of high speed rail. For many, high speed rail is a demonstration of technical expertise and is an effective manner in which to ‘show off’ know-how and engineering expertise. High speed rail is seen as a sign of modernisation and a means to stimulate economic development. It’s the jewel in the crown as far as transport is concerned and proof of how far a nation has come.

Such is the potential of high speed rail that countries are now coming to blows over the technology that gets the trains moving. Recently, Japan accused China of stealing its high speed rail patents and exporting their technology abroad. High speed rail is a booming sector and winning construction contracts internationally is highly lucrative. It’s no wonder countries and firms guard their secrets jealously.  

In the next blog post we will take a look at high speed rail in America to see how plans are coming along with Obama’s $53 billion plan to connect his country.


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