Wednesday, October 13, 2010

China's High-Speed Rail Projects

High-Speed Railways (HSR) seems to be becoming a favorite coming-of-age symbol for many countries. Japan started this with its "bullet train" lines in 1964, followed by Germany & France. The system has since been replicated in many countries including Portugal, Spain, Taiwan & South Korea. Now China is rolling out what a demagogue might call the Mother of All High-Speed Rail Networks.

View China High-Speed Rail Network in a larger map

Right now, China is implementing the most extensive HSR network ever built. In two year's time, the Chinese government plans to build 42 lines, with 5,000 miles of track for passenger trains at 215 miles an hour and 3,000 miles of track for passenger and fast freight trains traveling 155 miles an hour. This is expected to cost about US$ 300billion - the largest component of its two-year (2009-2010) economic stimulus package of $585 billion stimulus package and about about 13% of 2008 GDP.

This brings forth quite a number of interesting questions:
  • How does China expect to benefit from the HSR projects?
  • Is HSR really a more efficient alternative to its nearest competitor - air travel?
  • How did China develop the technical expertise for such a project?
Lets try to figure this these questions one by one..

1. How does China expect to benefit from the HSR projects?

Apart from the prestige and brownie-points that come from such grand, symbolic projects, it is expected to significantly bring down the cost of freight and mass-transport.

In 2008, the first high-speed, 70km rail-link between Beijing and Taijin brought down the travel time to just 30 minutes. Beijing-Shanghai Line (1070 km) is expected to bring down the travel-time from 10 hours to just four. Also the huge budget of $300 billion, just  for HSR construction projects is expected to boost many related industries, including steel, cement, and real estate businesses.

2. How did China develop the necessary technical expertise for such a project?

Quite simply, by brilliantly playing off multinational engineering firms against one another.
In 2004, a consortium led by Kawasaki Heavy Industries (KHI + Mitsubishi Corp, Mitsubishi Electric, Hitachi, Itochu Corp and Marubeni Corp.) agreed to provide the technology to build the E2-1000 to local partner Nanche Sifang Locomotive. Also the Qingdao Sifang Kawasaki Rolling Stock Technology Co. started to build new trains with KHI's technology for Hayate bullet trains, which currently run on Japan's Tohoku Shinkansen line. Soon, other Japanese railway parts suppliers such as Hitachi, Toyo Electric and Nabtesco Corp. warmed up to the prospect of increased business in China

Around the same time, Canada's Bombardier Sifang won a 27.4 billion yuan ($4 billion) contract from the Chinese Ministry of Railways for a signaling system on the network as well as for work on 40 high-speed trains. Siemens of Germany and France’s Alstom, were also persuaded to part with their high-speed rail technology at a cost “clearly below” standard prices.

The trains that emerged from Sifang’s plant in Qingdao looked identical to the E2-1000 that the KHI-led consortium sold under licence in 2004. But state-owned Sifang insisted that underneath their distinctive Shinkansen exteriors, they are Chinese, and that it only uses technology that it had "fully digested" on its own.

Parallel to the foreign collaborations and JV's, China has also been training and recruiting a large number of engineers. In 2009, China Railway Construction Co., the nation's largest railroad builder, hired 14,000 new university graduates - mostly civil and electrical engineers.  This year, the company may hire up to 20,000 new university grads to cope with the company's intensifying workload.

  • The Beijing-Shanghai HSR would cover a distance is 1070km in four hours (av. speed 267kmph). The fastest train between Delhi-Kolkata, the Rajdhani Express, covers a distance of 1447 km (811 miles) in about 17 hours, at an average speed of 87kmph.
  • Distances & transit-time in China -- here.


China: A future on track - Mure Dickie (FT 23 Sep. 2010)

China to invest billions in new high-speed rail (AFP) – Jul 28, 2010
Japan Inc shoots itself in foot on bullet train--- By Mure Dickie FT --- July 8 2010

Shanghai - Nanjing high speed line opens - 07 July 2010

China Is Eager to Bring High-Speed Rail Expertise to the U.S.- Keith Bradsher (NYT April 7, 2010)

China Sees Growth Engine in a Web of Fast Trains  (NYT Feb.2010)

How Japan Profits From China's Plans -- Vivian Wai-yin Kwok, (Forbes 10.26.09) 

IBM Opens Global Rail Innovation Centre (July 2009)

China`s Amazing New High Speed Trains - CNN (Aug 2009)

IBM rides the high-speed rail (CNN June 22, 2009)

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