When the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, the country’s rail network was in shambles. Stretching over only 20,000 km — less than half the route length India possessed in 1947 — the tracks were in disrepair, destroyed by years of civil war.
Sixty years on, China has added an astounding 55,000 km to the network, which now extends more than 75,000 km, surpassing India’s. It has also built an additional 10,000 km of high-speed lines, the world’s largest such network. The country now boasts a modern, efficient railway system, powered by European-designed and China-made express trains and high-speed trains, and connected by modern stations that often resemble airport terminals than train stations.
By 2020, China will have increased its network length to 1,20,000 km and expanded its high-speed rail network — which runs on a separate track — to 20,000 km. The high-speed rail network, last year unveiled its most impressive line yet — a 1,500-km track that connects Beijing and Shanghai, covering a distance comparable to that between New Delhi and Mumbai in only four-and-a- half hours. How did China succeed in overhauling its rail system? A report published last year by the World Bank — which has advised China’s Ministry of Railways over the past few decades — attributed the success to its state-led “single-point responsibility” model and to the country’s “strong technical capacity and process.”
The Ministry of Railways (MOR) holds complete control of both planning and executing projects, as well as building trains and running the system. As in India and unlike in the West, there are no private companies that ply on the state-built system. The MOR also finances all projects, and has not pursued any Public-Private Partnership models, which, the World Bank report argued, had led to longer execution periods in many countries owing to financial and other constraints.
The World Bank also identified the country’s strength in planning, in facilitating rapid expansion. The government runs six railway design institutes — each employing around 4,000 people. “This capacity together with a singular focus provides the means and ability to produce a feasibility report within a 6-12 month time frame,” the World Bank report observed. “In most countries, feasibility studies for major railway construction projects take up to 2 years to specify, procure, complete and report.”
Despite China’s considerable achievements in building a network capable of transporting large volumes of passengers — most notably every February during the Chinese New Year when the MOR handles a record 225 million trips, deploying more than 800,000 coaches — the rapid expansion of the high-speed network has, in recent months, triggered safety fears.
A high-speed rail crash in Wenzhou in July 2011 that left 40 people dead resulted in a temporary halt on projects. The high level of debt from the speed of expansion has also led to concerns about the long-term sustainability of the network.
Wang Mengshu, a leading engineering professor who has advised the government on the high-speed rail network, told The Hindu in an interview that as the railways were “a public good and a public investment” some amount of debt was unavoidable and tolerable. A review undertaken after the Wenzhou accident, he added, addressed safety concerns and the network had maintained an excellent safety record since. He also argued that for India, where land is scarce, high-speed rail built on elevated tracks and does not require acquisition of farmland is a good solution. But Zhao Jian, a professor at Beijing Jiaotong University who has been critical of the high-speed network, argued that while the lines may free up more rail track for freight, it prices out passengers. Building a dedicated freight corridor, he suggests, is a better financial investment.
Ananth Krishnan reports from Beijing.
Email: ananthkrishnan85 @gmail.com