From the steam age to the bullet train in a single bound ? nobody can accuse China's transport planners of a lack of ambition. As any railway enthusiast knows, the Peoples' Republic is virtually the last place on earth still building locomotives on a commercial scale, and yet this same country is planning to build a 270km/hour high-speed line from Xiamen to Fuzhou in Fujian province by 1997. The new line will be developed, at a cost of over 400 billion yuan, by a joint venture between the local Fujian Province Railway Construction and Development Company and a Japanese consortium fronted by the Ikawa Trust. The latter's involvement partly explains how the Chinese have been able to get the project off the ground.
The PRC will be joining the exclusive high-speed rail club. Japan led the way in the mid-1960s when, instead of concentrating exclusively on motorways, it took the then radical step of building a complete new inter-city railway, straighter and better-graded than the existing narrow gauge system. The "Shinkansen" (literally, "New Way") gradually developed into a nationwide system in Japan, but the only other country to have developed a country-wide system of genuinely high-speed rail lines is France, though Germany, Italy and Spain have built individual fast rail lines. Similar projects in Britain, the USA and elsewhere have yet to over-come financial and planning problems.
The Chinese line will probably use similar equipment to the electric multiple unit (EMU) trains currently operating on the Japanese Skinkansen. China does have one advantage over its Asian neighbour in that the new route will match the "standard 4'8" gauge of the national railway network. Japan, because it was introducing a standard-gauge . line into a country where the railway system was otherwise 3'6" gauge, had to build a complete new infrastructure, with its own access to crowded city centres and separate stations and depots. And where the standard gauge line stops, the trains have to stop too, as they can not run on the narrow gauge tracks.
France, in contrast, can run its Trains a Grande Vitesse well beyond the end of the high-speed line itself, albeit at "only" 200km/hour, enabling it to link in towns and cities not on the high-speed network. China would theoretically do the same, though it may in practice be difficult to find the track capacity on the chronically over-crowded national railway network, much of which is currently unelectrified. China has one other advantage over both Japan and Europe ? that is, from the railway planners' point of view. It lacks the organised residential and environmental interest groups which have impeded development of fast railways elsewhere.
There is an environmental case to answer, however. Although railways are generally seen as being greener than motorways and airports, the sensation of 270km/hour trains streaking a few yards away from your front window is not a pleasant one, as many Japanese will testify. Electric trains may not pollute the immediate environment, but the electricity has to be produced somewhere, possibly in one of China's coal-fired power stations. In terms of energy consumed per passenger carried, the modern generation of high-speed train is probably on a par with slower, traditional trains, though diesel-powered buses can be slightly more efficient than many trains, though much slower. It is also important to question whether a high-speed passenger-only line best serves the interests of a country with such pressing transport needs for both passenger and freight elsewhere. The new line will only serve a limited number of intermediate towns, and it is questionable whether fares will be set at a level which the ordinary Chinese citizen can afford.
But, on the assumption that there is a need for businessmen to get between Fuzhou and Xiamen in under two hours, the express railway is infinitely more attractive than expansion of airport facilities or a motorway. High-speed railway technology, though a world away from the traditional Chinese train, is probably more capable of being developed within China than an advanced aerospace engineering capability. And China's eastern province will have an impressive shop-window to show to the rest of the world.
Elsewhere in the country, China's railway men face the unexciting but essential task of trying to squeeze more train paths out of a system that is operating at virtually maximum capacity. Although in absolute terms, the Chinese rail network is one of the world's largest, the country does not enjoy a particularly "dense" system relative to its geographical size and 1 billion population. This has the effect of funnelling the 1.5 billion tonnes of freight and 900 million passengers a year onto a relatively small number of routes, much of which is single track and steam operated. Roads in China are primitive and long distance trucking and buses scarcely exist, so rail is the main mode of inland trans port for freight and non-local passenger journeys. Very few Chinese have access to private cars which, given the state of the roads, is probably just as well.
A vast amount of new railway is being built or planned ? not high-speed lines like Fuzhou-Xiamen, but lines capable of taking heavy 5000 ton freight trains and conventional passenger stock. Major projects now under way include the Yuan 20 billion-plus Beijing-Shenzhen north-south trunk line, the Daquin coal line, already open. between Dashizhuang and Qinhuangdao and a line between Hengfeng and Nanping, along with branch lines too numerous to mention. Other new routes, including the Guiyang-Beihai line are at an advanced planning stage.
In all, the Chinese railways ministry expects to add over 2000 kilometres to its network in 1993 ? more than many European countries' total existing system. No less important are schemes to electrify existing lines or double-track the numerous single-line sections. Schemes in the latter category include Beijing-Kowloon and, Chengdu-Baoji and Xining-Golmud, while plans are in hand to wire about 4-5000 kilometres of route on the modern 25 kilovolt system, with the aid of a US$400 million World Bank loan. Some private capital, either local or from overseas will be introduced to railway building and a start has been made on decentralising the massive Chinese National Railways organisation into more manageable local companies.
These improvements should make life easier for the average citizen as he or she tries to move around the country but equally important is the effect on freight movements. China is seriously handicapped in its ability to move standard shipping containers through its port and on its inland transport system. Although containerised traffic at China's ports has been growing at over 40 per cent, 1.3 million twenty foot equivalent units (TEUs) were handled in the first half of 1992, the country is still a comparatively minor player in the world container league. The PRC's 2-3 million TEU annually pales into insignificance compared with the USA's 15-16 million or Japan's 8-9 million.
This in turn is hampering the China Ocean Shipping Company s ability to invest in larger and more modern designs of container ship to replace its small conventional vessels most of which are well over ten years old and inhibit its ability to compete with other countries' shipping lines on major trade routes. No Chinese port could cope with a 4000 TEU monster arriving and attempting to unload half its cargo. The main coastal ports are urgently developing container facilities ? Shanghai, the Republic's busiest box port, for example, is building three new berths in partnership with 7-long Kong-based Hutchinson Whampoa. This is expected to boost its capacity by 0.8 million TEU ? e9uivalent to about a third of the country s container traffic in 1992. *
Alongside its attempts to develop its own bullet train, China is trying to emulate its Asian neighbours in the urban railway field. Shanghai, population 7 million, was due to open a section its first metro line from Jin Jiang Park northwards to Xu Jia Hui on the southern fringes of the city centre. The line will eventually be extended to the north again from the main China Railways station.
China has been relatively slow to join the world metro club with only Benin and Tianjin at present with operational systems. Beijing, which opened its first line in 1969, is now slowly extending its Line 1 eastwards to Xiden and, ultimately, Bawangfem, though the project seems to have fallen behind schedule. A circular line 2 is also in existence while plans exist for a third line from Yihe Yuan in the northwest, through the central business district and out again to the main airport. But despite its status as one of the world's major capitals, Beijing resembles other Chinese cities in that the vast majority of its urban transport market is catered for by motor and trolley-buses and, of course, bicycles.
Tianjin hosts the only other operational metro in mainland China, a short stretch from the Xi Zhan main rail station south to Yinhua Lu. This line is in the process of being extended northwards and plans exist to extend the line into a continuous circle. Chengdu, Guangzhou and other major cities have also reached the advanced planning stage for their own systems.
Metros in developing world cities have their critics; some transport experts argue that, despite their high populations and urban densities, travel to work patterns differ from the suburb-to-centre pattern which has been the justification for subway systems in the developed world. They can also point to the high cost and the need for scarce foreign capital ? Shanghai's network uses German trains and other western equipment.
Nevertheless, with the largely bus and trolleybus-based surface transport system grinding to halt, there seems little doubt that Shanghai's Line 1 will soon be carrying its expected 0.7 million passengers a day. Passenger numbers could be boosted still further by increasing the number of trains on the existing line and by opening additional lines.
Line 2 is an east-west route serving, among other places the Pudong economic development zone on the eastern bank of the Huangpu River. Construction will start soon after the completion of line 1. A third route is being planned, while tentative plans exist for up to six further lines which, when completed, would give total coverage of the entire urban area. *