China's prospering cities are paying a high price for progress. Problems have accumulated with the rapid pace of change. Urban planners have long been aware that they need to do something about mounting traffic congestion, pollution and environmental degradation. What is more, they are striving to link expanding suburbs and downtown areas with affordable and efficient public transport, as housing makes way for office blocks in central areas and residents are encouraged to move into satellite conurbations.
Urban railways are an obvious solution to several of these problems. At the end of 2000, China earmarked Yn130bn for urban mass transit systems over the coming five years, resulting in 400km of line. There are a number of possibilities: the cost-effective options above ground, including light railways and tramways; and the more expensive metros, capable of shifting large volumes of passengers along direct routes through heavily built-up areas.
High-speed line to Pudong airport
Shanghai has been selected as the first city to get a major magnetic suspension line, termed maglev. The German technology was chosen despite it being better suited to long distances where it can attain speeds of up to 500km per hour. In Shanghai it will have a relatively short run of 33km – albeit probably uninterrupted between Pudong airport and Longyang Road metro station on Line Two. The possibility of other stops along the route has been mooted, but would slow the estimated rapid transit time of 10 minutes.
With growing passenger throughput at Pudong airport, there are high hopes of a relatively early payback on the Yn5bn outlay. The maglev line could be up and running in 2003, with construction having started last month. The Pudong magnetic suspension line is part practical – there is an unquestioned need to connect the international airport with the downtown it serves – but also a matter of civic, even national, pride. It represents a first for the technology in a major metropolis. If all goes well, Shanghai may provide the model that other cities world-wide follow.
Shanghai also boasts China's first elevated light railway, called Mingzhu Line One, which has been in trial operation since the end of last year. The line runs almost 25km between the South Railway Station in the south-west of the city to Jiangwan in the north-east. It crosses important metro and bus routes at 17 junctures along its 19-station length. End-to-end travel time is around one hour. Phase two construction on the line is scheduled to begin this year.
For political as much as practical reasons – the government is committed to heavy investment in the west of the country – Chongqing has been awarded the distinction of following in Shanghai's footsteps with an elevated light rail system of its own. Chongqing wants to become a major inland communications hub, an aspiration that needs to be matched by efficient internal transportation. Work on an elevated light rail system began in June last year, for completion in two stages in 2004. The route will run 17km past 17 stations, and is intended eventually to account for a fifth of all passenger traffic in the municipality. The city also plans to build a metro network.
More typically, China's urban blueprints are crisscrossed with conventional transportation systems over and above ground.
The largest cities have plans for light rail, metro and tramway networks, held back in many instances by the need for central government approvals and heavy finance.
The focus is mainly on the 20 or so cities with populations exceeding 5m. Several have secured approvals. Over the next few years, leading cities will see new rail transit systems up-and-running, under construction or well into the design stage. Thereafter, less prominent cities such as Anshan, Harbin and even Urumqi may climb the approvals list.
Work in some cities is well advanced. Guangzhou, which expects to complete its Line Two by 2003 or 2004 and Line Three by 2007, has set a 130km target for its public rail network. The Yn16bn third line will con-tribute 32km between the city's Tianhe rail-way station and Panyu, on the other side of the Pearl River. Work begins this year. Line Four is at the planning stage, to run from the scientific quarter in Tianhe to Pazhou in Haizhu in the south. In a separate development, the city wants a 35km light rail link between Tianhe railway station and Guangzhou airport.
Big plans for Wuhan
Nanjing will have a metro running by 2005, requiring Yn7bn. The first stretch will cover 17km. With a population of around 4m, Wuhan counts as one of the smaller cities with big plans. Six light rail lines will cost Yn1.7bn. Line One first phase construction of 10.5 km was approved last year. Eventually, this line will extend 27km, connecting the city's two districts of Hankou and Wuchang.
Beijing enjoyed a head start the Pingguoyuan metro link to Beijing Railway Station was in place by 1969. A loop line was added 15 years later. Beijing's rail length currently extends almost 55km.
Shanghai built its first metro line in the late 1980s. Tianjin also has a metro system, albeit only 7km in length, while Guangzhou's dates from 1999. In terms of urban rail length, however, Shanghai leads. The Mingzhu line takes the total length of the municipality's urban rail system to 65km.
Economic considerations can drive planning. Beijing is adding light rail to its transportation system, including a line connecting Xizhimen and Dongzhimen, which are key public transportation nodes. The capital's computer, software and information technology enterprises are concentrated on Zhongguancun in the north-west of the city. Beijing wants this district to be linked by light rail to the downtown metro system. When complete in 2005, the line may be as long as 40km, at a cost of almost Yn6bn. A 19km elevated light railway, linking Banwangfen and Tognzhou is expected to be put in operation in 2002. Beijing's transportation strategy is fixed firmly on rail where, longer term, there are plans for a dozen or more transit lines. By 2005, the capital expects to have a total rail length of 150km.
Beijing's need for new infrastructure is the more urgent because of its bid to host the 2008 Olympic Games. The capital is anxious to demonstrate that it has the best offer for staging the games and efficient transportation is part of the showcase. There are plans to extend the Number Five metro route to the prospective site of the games, at an estimated cost of Yn12bn. The Canadian group SNCLavalin has recently signed a joint venture agreement with Beijing Capital Group to build the line.
Public transport commitment
Shanghai says it will have 100km of metro lines in place by 2005, accounting for a fifth of all journeys made, compared with just 3 percent last year. Eventually, it hopes to have more than 470km of urban rail city-wide.
The city is incorporating its transportation objectives within a broader city-planning context. For example, re-development of the waterfront along both sides of the Huangpu River is in prospect, with industry and docks relocated. Proposals include laying light railways along the embankments, which host the Bund on the Puxi side and Lujiazui financial centre on the Pudong side. In total, Shanghai plans to have 11 metro lines and 10 light rail-ways in 20 years time, laying 15-20km on average each year. Existing track will be extended, for example to connect metro Line Two with Hongqiao Airport.
Affordability and convenience are at the heart of the city's public transportation strategy. There are plans for comprehensive ticketing, where one ticket covers rail and bus travel, something that is already being introduced in Guangzhou. The Guangdong capital is bringing in an automatic-fare charging system, by issuing an estimated 1m integrated circuit cards designed to be used on ferries and buses as well as the metro.
Finance and technology are China's two main constraints. The central government will rely on public funding, financed in part from bond issues, as well as private money. It intends shouldering no more than a third of the cost of projects in coming years, after which local government must step in.
There is some policy-directed lending – for example, in January the Beijing Subway Company secured a 40-year, Yn1bn loan at only 0.95 percent in annual interest from China's Export and Import Bank.
Where foreign companies are involved, attempts will be made to incorporate advantageous financing terms as part of contracts. The government expects costs to be contained by sourcing local content where possible, but this stipulation will become more difficult to enforce once China joins the World Trade Organisation.
China will remain exercised by the challenge of urban expansion and redevelopment. Work-in-progress on urban transportation schemes has been reactive, to ease rather than resolve or preempt problems. As China's economy grows, and the state forges ahead with its overarching strategy of urbanisation, bringing tens of millions of people to cities new and old, the stresses and strains can only build. Now might be the time to introduce new rail to China's cities, while urban planners are still at their drawing boards.