Image Courtesy of China Rail Corp
When you think of Chinas economy, the words mass produced spring to mind. And when it comes to Chinas astonishing accomplishment of constructing 10,000km of high-speed lines in just seven years, the words mass produced are equally as relevant.
By December, 2013, China boasted the largest high speed rail network in the world greater even than the EU, making up 60% of the worlds high-speed railway lines. China aims to build 16,000km of lines by 2020. The lines run at a maximum speed of 350km/h.
There are currently eight passenger lines either operating, under construction or planned, running trains which travel at between 200km/h to 350km/h. It has been constructed at an average cost of $1721million per kilometre, compared with $2539million per kilometre in Europe and a projected $56million per kilometre in California.
This has been achieved by low labour costs, with 130,000 construction workers and engineers working day and night to complete the 1,318km line between Beijing and Shanghai in just 38 months.
In addition, land acquisition costs are either low or non-existent, in rural areas especially, since some of the land has been given by regional and local governments in lieu of financial backing. Another reason is the use of innovative technology and materials, which are all mass produced. Similarly, signalling and communication systems are all standardised and mass produced, and therefore have a far lower unit-cost than European comparables.
Gerald Ollivier, a World Bank Senior Transport Specialist and co-author of the paper High-Speed Railways in China: A Look at Construction Costs, published in July 2014, said:
Besides the lower cost of labor in China, one possible reason for this is the large scale of the high-speed railway network planned in China. This has allowed the standardization of the design of various construction elements, the development of innovative and competitive capacity for manufacture of equipment and construction and the amortization of the capital cost of construction equipment over a number of projects.
One of the most interesting of these techniques, and which as proved cost-effective, is the mass production of standardised viaducts. Each one is identical in design, constructed in temporary factories along the route and transported no further than 8 miles, thereby considerably cutting down on design and transport costs. This cheap method of using viaducts instead of embankments also reduces the costs of resettlement and land acquisition.
Furthermore, stations are often not included in the total cost of the railway, being built as independent urban developments. Smaller stations are also urban centres, while mega-stations, are more akin to large airports, and occasionally they also are airports.
These stations, therefore, are not mass-produced, each one is unique and representative of its town or city. Many of the designs are highly elaborate, such as Wuhan Station which was based on the Yellow Crane, the symbol of the city, and Beijing South Station which is designed to look like a temple.
The railway is financed in part by the World Bank, state-owned bank loans and bonds, provincial governments (by way of ceding land), public enterprises and additional taxes placed on freight transport. By the middle of 2011, the Ministry of Railways was nearly $318billion in debt. A further $444billion was found to fund the following three years construction.
The construction project was masterminded by former Railways Minister Liu Zhijun, who was appointed in 2003. However, Liu, since dubbed the most hated man in China was arrested in 2011 for corruption, with $2.8billion of bribes and embezzled funds in overseas accounts. The collision of two trains in September of that year, killing 40 people and injuring 200 more, went from a tragedy to a scandal.
Liu has since received a suspended death sentence for corruption and bribery. The blame lay with the Ministry of Railways, with an official report naming 54 senior officials whose actions had led to the crash. Defects in the design of the control centre equipment and substandard emergency response capabilities were announced as the problem, which was the fault of corner-cutting by corrupt contractors, rather than corner-cutting to save money and time.
Many safety measures were taken, including an investigation of the existing lines, an examination of planned lines, and slowing down the fastest lines from 350km/h to 300km/h. The Ministry of Railways was subsequently dismantled into two parts, with regulatory functions being taken over by the Ministry of Transportation, and commercial functions being taken over by China Railway Corp. The overseas arm of the China Railway Corporation is the China Railway Group.
Chinas official newspaper, Peoples Daily, boasts that Chinas high-speed railways will run at 500km/h by 2050, and in 2010 announced that the CRH380A reached speeds of 486km/h. Considering the leaps that China has made in high-speed rail, with relatively little imported innovation and technology, this seems to be attainable. It makes China an attractive partner for overseas projects.
China Railway Group Limited describes itself as a mega corporation group integrating survey and design, construction and installation, industrial manufacturing, real estate development, resources and mineral products, financial investment and other services headquartered in Beijing, China. It is a one-stop shop for any countrys high-speed railway building needs.
The first overseas project to be completed by China Railway Group was in Turkey in 2014, linking Istanbul with Ankara. A 1,344km line in Angola began operating in the same year. This year, China contracted to build a line between Mombasa and Nairobi in Kenya, which will go on into Uganda, Rwanda, Buruni and South Sudan. China Railway Group will fund 90% of the project. China Railway Group also exports rolling stock, with Chinese-built trains running in Argentina.
One of two overseas projects to be formally confirmed recently was with Indonesia, announced only last week. It is not a state-venture by Indonesia, but rather a collaboration between China Railway Corp, with the financial backing of private Chinese investors, and private Indonesian corporations.
In August, 2014, Peoples Daily, ran an article headlined, Americas High-Speed Rail Dream Has Become a Global Joke. Despite this, or possibly because of it, a consortium led by China Railway Group has contracted with XpressWest to construct a high-speed line between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
The group is reportedly in discussions with more than 20 other countries to either construct lines or provide rolling stock, or both. Beijing recently hosted the annual High Speed Rail Conference, building up its credibility after the corruption scandal.
Chinas chief economic strength is in export, and high-speed rail appears to be no different. While there is limited profitability in the high-speed lines within China, with most passengers unable to afford rising ticket prices and therefore with passenger projections insufficient to bring the project into profit, the project will have given China the expertise, innovation and technology to export these assets around the world.
However, mass produced bridges and viaducts may not be acceptable in Europe and America, where labour and land are expensive and safety standards are rigidly high. It may well be that the achievements within China cannot be replicated in the Developed World with the same degree of success.
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