Global experience

Chinese lessons

Print edition : October 13, 2017

Bullet trains at a maintenance base at Wuhan in China’s Hubei province, December 2012. Photo: DARLEY SHEN/REUTERS

The way in which China has leveraged investments in its overall rail infrastructure, and not just in high-speed travel, to promote wider socio-economic goals offers important lessons for India.

If there is a global championship for running High Speed Rail (HSR) networks, China will win hands down. Japan may have been the pioneer and France an early starter, but China is the superpower in this game. A relatively late starter, China started its HSR programme 39 years after the Shinkansen first started operations in 1964. The Japanese Bullet Train network had the highest annual ridership among all such railways in the world until 2011, when the Chinese HSR, just eight years old at that time, surpassed the Shinkansen. Although the old warhorse started with speeds below 200 kilometres an hour, the modern definition of an HSR is any train system that travels at a minimum speed of 250 km/hr. In that race for speed the bullet train is expected to maintain a speed of 320-350 km/hr. In June 2017, a train with a maximum speed of 400 km/hr was unveiled on the Beijing-Shanghai line.

Fast passenger trains have been around for many years. The speed record for a steam locomotive was set in Britain in 1938 when a train achieved a top speed of 203 km/hr, although over a short stretch of less than a kilometre. Earlier, in Germany in 1933, the Flying Hamburger attained a top speed of 150 km/hr and an impressive commercial speed (speed at which the journey is completed, inclusive of stopping time at stations en route) of 130 km/hr. In 1938, a train between Bologna and Naples attained a commercial speed of 160 km/hr.

All these trains ran on existing conventional tracks, until the Shinkansen appeared in Japan on the eve of the Tokyo Olympics. Construction of the new 515-km electrified alignment between Tokyo and Osaka commenced in 1959. The concept of the Tokaido Shinkansen—the original bullet train—provided the base for the expansion of fast train services in Japan. This was achieved by not only expanding the Shinkansen network—now more than 2,700 km—but increasing the frequency of services, to the point that it is akin to a high-speed suburban railway system. No other HSR system in the world—not even the Chinese—has matched the impressive safety record that the Shinkansen has achieved over 53 years.

The Shinkansen set the norm for passenger-dedicated lines (PDL), which nearly all HSRs now follow. K. Balakesari, former Member, Railway Board, told Frontline that it was only logical because “differential train speeds of trains on a single track result in poorer utilisation of track capacity, slowing everything that moves along it”. Additionally, segregating freight traffic from passenger lines, as the Chinese government has done successfully, speeded up both kinds of traffic by not allowing one to hinder the other. Although achieving higher speeds is certainly a key objective, the more important goal from a systemic point of view is to increase efficiencies by scaling up throughput on tracks. More trains on the same tracks during the same length of time increases capacity utilisation, Balakesari pointed out. He added that ever higher speeds were an obvious advantage that flowed from this approach, a source of prestige for the prevailing political regime.

According to the latest data available for global comparison, in April 2015, the Chinese HSR network accounted for a whopping 60 per cent of the length of all HSR systems in operation or being implemented in the world. The country’s HSR network, already at 19,000 km in 2015, is to expand to 31,000 km by 2020, by which time China’s nearest competitor globally would be Spain, with a total length of under 5,000 km of HSR (see accompanying table and pie chart).

‘Walking on two legs’

Two aspects of the Chinese HSR programme are particularly striking, not just in comparison with what is being attempted in India but elsewhere too. The first is that, unlike in India, the Chinese HSR system was not delinked from the conventional railway system. Instead, it was incorporated into a systemic approach to improve the national rail system in all its dimensions. Thus, the HSR was conceptualised as part of an overall programme in which there was a hierarchy of speeds for different parts of the railway system. Even before the HSR came into being the Chinese government had undertaken a significant programme that focussed on increasing the speeds at which other trains—not just passenger, but also goods—were travelling. The HSR was at the apex of these speeds, but it was accompanied by the attention and focus that the Chinese government gave to rail transportation in general. Ten years after commencing HSR operations, the Chinese route network totalled 10,000 km, and by 2015 it had nearly doubled; by 2020 it will have added another 11,000 km to its HSR network.

This Chinese approach is probably best evoked by Mao Zedong’s famous slogan “Walking on Two Legs”. Between 1997 and 2001, well before the HSR trains started running in China, the maximum speed of conventional trains was progressively increased, from 100 km/hr to 160 km/hr. And this was no piecemeal approach; such passenger trains ran over 13,000 km across China.

Note the striking contrast between India and China. Two decades after China extensively upgraded speeds all round on all classes of passenger trains, there are only a few trains in India that attain these speeds. Even more importantly, while improving conventional train speeds, China started trials for high-speed services using new track designs and EMU (Electric multiple unit) train sets. The integration of all aspects of the national rail component systems was unveiled in the Chinese Ministry of Railways’ document “Mid to Long-Range Network Plan” in 2003. It presented, for the first time, a unified perspective reflecting a systemic approach to rail transportation in all its dimensions, in which the HSR was only one. The critical role of the state is illustrated by the administrative structure of China’s high-speed rail programme. China Rail, directly under the Chinese Railway Ministry, runs the CRH(China High-Speed Rail). This is unlike most other HSR projects across the world, which probably explains why China rules the world of HSRs.

Referring to the Chinese HSR system under construction, the World Bank’s Beijing office, in a study published in 2010, observed: “It is perhaps the biggest single planned programme of passenger rail investment there has ever been in one country.” The key role of the Chinese railways in the Chinese government’s economic stimulus programme in the wake of the global economic crisis is indicated by the fact that investment in the railways increased from $26 billion in 2007 to $49 billion in 2008, $88 billion in 2009, and $100 billion in 2010.

Why China rules the high-speed world

The second aspect of the Chinese programme—probably unique in the history of modern railway management—was the state acting as a powerful engine. This had several implications. First, according to a World Bank study of 2014, the Chinese system is the cheapest in terms of average cost per km, ranging between $17-21 million per km, which is 47 to 86 per cent lower than costs in Europe, the most notable competitor, apart from the Shinkansen. Incidentally, the Shinkansen’s costs are the most difficult to come by, and there have been scandals in the past—including one relating to the first Shinkansen line, after which the Japanese National Railway, which then operated the Shinkansen, had to resign for grossly understating costs.

Cost comparisons across countries and projects ought to be made with some caution as no two lines are similar. The topography, in particular, has an impact, because HSR tracks need to be as straight as possible in order to provide for train stability at high speeds. The costs associated with civil works such as bridges, viaducts and tunnels also depend on the route. Nevertheless, it is very clear that the dramatic difference in costs is because of China’s programme being state-led and its significant economies of scale and design.

Moreover, China invested heavily in not just tracks and coaches but also in developing in-house capability. This was achieved, according to a study, by establishing several large research institutions specifically focussing on research in rail transportation. Moreover, while China imported coaches, signalling and other equipment in the early years, it made use of its enormous scale by insisting on technology transfer and training of its own nationals by companies such as Kawasaki, Alstom and Siemens. Later, but quite quickly, it developed its own technology, so much so that its companies own a significant number of global patents in rail transportation systems and components. Today, armed with the expertise and know-how gained in the last two decades, Chinese companies are poised to scout globally for HSR projects.

Another significant aspect of the Chinese state-led strategy that is very different from other HSR systems is the Chinese state’s apparent willingness to adopt a more patient approach to recouping investments through fares. Chinese fares, according to a World Bank study of 2014, are significantly lower than fares in other HSR systems. For instance, while Chinese fares on trains travelling at 200-250 km/hr speeds were about 16 per cent of the fares on the Japanese rail system, on the Shinkansen-type trains (at speeds of 300-350 km/hr) the Chinese fares were only about one-fourth.

According to the World Bank, although operating and maintenance costs are generally low in HSR projects because of greater automation and better utilisation of assets, the capital costs are huge. The logic of the Chinese government’s willingness to recover capital costs over a longer-time horizon appears to be its appreciation of the larger picture.

In that picture, there are other benefits that it is eyeing. Since roadways are generally regarded to be relatively inefficient in terms of land use when compared with the railways, it perhaps makes better sense to divert road users to trains. The land for a six-lane highway would be more efficiently used by trains than by vehicles on the road. The logic is that trains carry more people and goods for the same unit of land utilised.

Also in this picture are the benefits flowing from a less environmentally damaging transportation system. Overall, incorporated into this logic is the belief that transportation is a basic economic infrastructure that serves a wider socio-economic purpose.

Instead of narrowly focussing on project-related cost-benefit analysis, as most private investors would do, the Chinese have kept their eyes on the overall economic rate of return, in which wider gains are kept in sight. The manner in which China has leveraged investments in its overall rail infrastructure—not just in high-speed travel—to promote wider socio-economic goals offers important lessons for India.

This is particularly important if the Narendra Modi government has any intention – or the political will – to engineer an economic stimulus to kick-start a faltering economy.