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Why China Is so Good at Building Railways

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12:12   |   Nov 13, 2018

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  • Imagine a train that took you from Washington, DC to Dallas, Texas in nine hours… or Paris,
  • France to Athens, Greece in nine hours… or Adelaide, South Australia to Perth, Western
  • Australia in nine hours.
  • These train trips actually take 44 hours, 44 hours, and 41 hours respectively so the
  • idea of making any of these trips by train in nine hours seems almost absurd.
  • In China, though, that’s reality.
  • In September, 2018 the country opened up a brand new high speed rail route with d irect
  • trains from Hong Kong to Beijing.
  • This is about the same distance as DC to Dallas, Paris to Athens, or Adelaide to Perth and
  • yet these trains make the trip in only 8 hours and 56 minutes.
  • What makes this even more impressive is that ten years ago, in 2008, at the time of the
  • Beijing Olympics, China’s high-speed rail network consisted of this.
  • We’ll have to zoom in because the extent of the network was one 19 mile-long Maglev
  • train from Shanghai Airport to the outskirts of Shanghai and a traditional high-speed rail
  • line from Beijing to the coastal city of Tianjin.
  • Today, ten years later, that network has expanded into this.
  • China has eight times as much high speed track as France, ten times as much as Japan, twenty
  • times as much as the UK, and five-hundred times as much as the US.
  • In fact, China has as much high-speed rail track as the rest of the world combined.
  • It is staggering the amount of progress they have made in such a short amount of time.
  • Traditionally high speed rail exists in small countries with rich populations by the likes
  • of Germany, France, and Japan.
  • China is neither of these things.
  • The country is enormous, about the same size as the US, and is also not rich.
  • While no longer poor, China is definitively a middle income country.
  • It’s about as rich as Mexico, Thailand, or Brazil.
  • In fact, despite being the country with the most high speed rail in the world, China is
  • also the poorest country in the world to have any high speed rail.
  • Despite the country’s vast size, China’s huge population makes it very dense especially
  • in the east half.
  • This means that China does have large cities close enough together where it makes sense
  • to take the train rather than the plane.
  • Trips like Guangzhou to Changsha, a distance of 350 miles, take an hour by plane or 2 hours
  • and 20 minutes by train.
  • When factoring in the time it takes to check in, go through security, and board it absolutely
  • makes sense to go by train when traveling between these two cities even without considering
  • that the high-speed train is cheaper than flying.
  • High speed rail even makes sense in China on longer routes where it wouldn’t in other
  • countries.
  • Beijing and Shanghai, for example, are about 650 miles apart.
  • Normally that would be too far for high speed rail to make sense.
  • Paris and Barcelona, for example, are 500 miles apart—closer than Beijing and Shanghai—but
  • only two high speed trains a day run between the two cities compared to about 20 flights.
  • Between Beijing and Shanghai, on the other hand, about 50 flights run per day run compared
  • to 41 trains.
  • Considering the trains carry far more people each, up to 1,200, trains are therefore the
  • dominant means of transport between these two cities.
  • There are a few differences between these two routes.
  • For one, while Beijing-Shanghai by train takes 4 hours and 28 minutes, Paris-Barcelona, despite
  • being a shorter distance, takes a longer 6 hours and 25 minutes.
  • The other factor, though, is about the competition.
  • Europe has an efficient air transport network dominated by budget airlines that are often
  • far cheaper than trains.
  • You can find tickets for flights between Paris and Barcelona for as little as $12 while the
  • cheapest Beijing-Shanghai flights go for $74.
  • Air travel within China is also far from efficient.
  • China Southern, China Eastern, and Air China, the three largest Chinese airlines, arrive
  • on time an average of 67%, 66%, and 63% of the time respectively.
  • A big reason for this is that there’s just not enough room in the skies.
  • A majority of China’s airspace is military controlled meaning that there are just these
  • narrow flight corridors that account for 30% of airspace where civilian planes can fly.
  • With tons of planes and not much room to fly planes are frequently delayed by air traffic
  • control to wait for the airspace to clear up which leads to the abysmal on-time ratings
  • of the country’s airlines.
  • While the Beijing-Shanghai flight takes only two hours the potential of delays, along with
  • all the other factors that make air travel slower, help make the train the popular means
  • of transport on this longer route.
  • Other train routes in China, though, make less sense.
  • For example, in 2014, the new high speed train line opened between Lanzhou and Urumqi.
  • These two cities are relatively small by China standards.
  • They both have a population of 3.5 million and between them are only small towns.
  • They’re also not close—about 1,000 miles separate them.
  • This project could therefore be compared to building a high speed train from Denver to
  • Seattle—they’re modestly sized cities a long way’s apart with nothing big in between.
  • Some people would use it but it wouldn’t make any financial sense.
  • In China, Lanzhou and Urumqi are not small cities but there’s really nothing big in
  • between and, at that distance, there’s no sense not flying.
  • The Lanzhou-Urumqi high speed train takes 11 hours compared to the 2.5 hour flight and
  • the construction cost of that line was $20 billion meaning that, if every seat on every
  • train was filled tickets would still have to cost $400 each way just to make back the
  • construction cost in 30 years.
  • In reality tickets cost about $80 and trains are far from full meaning that this rail line
  • is just insanely far from profitable.
  • The ticket revenues from these trains reportedly don’t even cover the cost of electricity
  • for the line let alone construction and other operating costs.
  • So why would the Chinese government sink so much money into something that has no prospects
  • of really ever making money?
  • Well, politics.
  • Urumqi is the capital of the Xinjiang province.
  • While 92% of China’s population is Han Chinese, the Xinjiang province is primarily Uyghur—one
  • of the minority ethnic groups of China—and there has been an ongoing fairly strong separatist
  • movement by the Uyghurs from China that has often turned violent.
  • The central government in Beijing, however, wants the Xinjiang province to be just as
  • integrated as the rest of the country and has tried a variety of methods to force this
  • including moving Han Chinese into the region and the imprisonment of Uyghurs in so-called
  • “reeducation camps.”
  • The high-speed train is just the most recent tactic to bring Xinjiang closer to Beijing
  • and this is no secret.
  • The central government is fully upfront in saying that the line was built to promote,
  • as they call it, “ethnic unity.”
  • This isn’t even the first time they’ve used this tactic of railroad politics.
  • Tibet, a region even better known than Xinjiang for its independence movement, was the last
  • region in China not to have a railway due to its small population and intense terrain.
  • The central government still wanted to build one, though, to bring it closer to the rest
  • of the country and so they did.
  • Trains now run directly from Beijing to Lhasa, Tibet in 47 hours on the highest elevation
  • rail line in the world.
  • These trains reach an elevation of 16,640 feet—so high that passengers have to use
  • a direct oxygen supply.
  • Even the train to Hong Kong serves the central government’s goal of further integrating
  • Hong Kong, which is an autonomous special administrative region, into mainland China.
  • While high-speed trains to Hong Kong certainly do make a lot more sense than trains to the
  • Xinjiang province, many Hong Kongers have not greeted the new service kindly as they
  • view it as an encroachment on the autonomy guaranteed to them by Hong Kong Basic Law.
  • The most controversial part has not been the fact that there’s a train but rather that
  • the station in Hong Kong includes an area that is effectively now part of Mainland China
  • since people pass through border controls before boarding the train in Hong Kong.
  • Just like any country, what having a high-speed, efficient rail network in China is doing is
  • bringing the country together and making it stronger even if it’s bringing together
  • people that want to stay apart.
  • No matter their motives, it’s clear that China is building their high speed rail network
  • more efficiently than any other country.
  • To compare, this is the plan for California’s high speed rail line from San Francisco to
  • the Los Angeles area.
  • It’s currently in very early phases of construction and is expected to open by 2029.
  • Of course that means that the time it will take for the California’s high speed rail
  • network to go from this to this is the same as the time it took China’s high speed rail
  • network to go from this to this but, the main thing to look at is cost.
  • This Californian network is expected to cost $77 billion and is 520 miles long meaning
  • that it will cost $148 million per mile to build.
  • China, on the other hand, is building their network at a cost of only $30 million per
  • mile.
  • Of course labor costs are lower in China and their network crosses more rural areas where
  • land acquisition costs are lower but, what’s more meaningful is that they’ve turned building
  • high speed rail into almost an assembly line process where they can mass produce even the
  • most expensive elements like viaducts and tunnels.
  • In true Chinese fashion, with scale they’re making high-speed cheaper.
  • The big difference between China and a lot of the western world, particularly countries
  • like the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK, is that high speed rail is at
  • the top of the government’s priorities.
  • Unsurprisingly given their government structure, in many ways, China has placed social benefit,
  • at least by the definition of the central government, ahead of profitability when developing
  • their high speed rail network.
  • High-speed rail lines just aren’t as profitable as other means of transport like planes but
  • they are undoubtably better for countries so you have to consider the social benefit
  • when looking at their overall profitability.
  • For the San Francisco to LA high speed rail route, for example, one study found that the
  • social benefit derived from lower carbon emissions, higher worker productivity, and reduced casualties
  • from fewer people on the road would be equivalent to about $440 million per year.
  • As it turns out, this is almost the exact amount that the state will have to subsidize
  • the line for it to break even.
  • The China Railway Corporation, a state owned enterprise, is actually slightly profitable,
  • although it does have huge amounts of debts and is helped by government subsidies.
  • The benefit to the Chinese people, though, is huge.
  • The high-speed rail allows those who can’t afford to live in the most expensive cities
  • like Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou to easily commute from cheaper suburbs by high-speed
  • rail.
  • Thanks to the high-speed rail, there are now 75 million people who can commute to Shanghai
  • in under an hour.
  • It is growing what are already some of the largest cities and, when it comes to cities,
  • size is strength.
  • These lines connecting the east’s largest cities are some of the most profitable rail
  • lines in the world and they’re making living and working in China easier but the question
  • is, when we look back decades from now, whether the high-speed trains to smaller cities will
  • have made sense.
  • Out of a desire to keep the lines going straight between the big cities, the stops for smaller
  • cities are often out in the countryside dozens of miles away from the city core.
  • The high speed station for Hengyang, for example, a smaller city of only a million, is about
  • a 45 minute drive east of the city center.
  • The hope is that new development will spring up around the stations but this network structure,
  • even if it saves time on the train, wastes time before and after which degrades the benefit
  • of high-speed rail.
  • In all, China is really the first country to have experimented with long-distance, high
  • speed rail through less-dense areas in its west.
  • In the east, though, these trains are enlarging the country’s economic power.
  • It’s just one of the many factors speeding up China’s catch-up with world’s richest
  • countries.
  • Even though China is building these trains for less and innovating on the construction
  • of high-speed rail, the real reason why China is so good at building railways is because
  • they have the one thing that almost every other country lacks—the political will for
  • high-speed trains.
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References:
[1] https://www.economist.com/china/2017/01/13/china-has-built-the-worlds-largest-bullet-train-network
[2] https://datahelpdesk.worldbank.org/knowledgebase/articles/906519-world-bank-country-and-lending-groups
[3] http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/451551468241176543/pdf/932270BRI0Box30ffic020140final000EN.pdf
[4] https://www.oag.com/on-time-performance-star-ratings-2018
[5] https://www.export.gov/article?id=China-Aviation
[6] https://translate.google.com.au/translate?sl=auto&tl=en&js=y&prev=_t&hl=en&ie=UTF-8&u=http%3A%2F%2Fpolitics.people.com.cn%2FGB%2F14562%2F10317457.html&edit-text=&act=url
[7] https://www.ft.com/content/ca28f58a-955d-11e8-b747-fb1e803ee64e
[8] http://www.hsr.ca.gov/docs/about/business_plans/Draft_2018_Business_Plan.pdf
[9] https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/bitstream/handle/10986/25483/892000BRI0Box3000china0transport09.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
[10] https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Ralf_Wilhelms/publication/280924889_Social_Benefits_As_Part_In_The_Economic_Evaluation_Of_High_Speed_Rail/links/55cb933508aebc967dfe1a03/Social-Benefits-As-Part-In-The-Economic-Evaluation-Of-High-Speed-Rail.pdf
[11] http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2018-05/05/c_137158303.htm
[12] https://www.economist.com/china/2017/01/13/china-has-built-the-worlds-largest-bullet-train-network

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