China's high-speed rail network has expanded rapidly in the past decade. Photo: AFP

More high-speed rail arteries and feeder lines will connect China’s largest megacities and outlying regions in Beijing’s new drive to more than double the length of China’s high-speed railway network.

The network is already the world’s longest and the new aim is to hit the 70,000-kilometer mark within 15 years. More residents in far-flung cities and counties across inland provinces and border regions can expect to get onboard the expansion.

China National Railway Corporation unveiled the plans last week. Lines are designed to run deep into China’s far west to connect all cities with a population of at least half a million residents.

The new lines are in various stages of planning, land surveying and track laying and will add about 36,000 kilometers to China’s current high-speed network.

China embarked on its building spree after inaugurating its first high-speed railway between Beijing and Tianjin just before the 2008 Olympics.

In the ensuing decade, the nation pulled ahead from far behind in the global race to build more lines. The “go all-out and go fast” boom added 35,000 kilometers as of the end of 2019, when almost all major cities and counties in central and coastal regions were connected by at least one high-speed line.

Sixteen east-west and north-south lines form the backbone of a network that now spans large tracts of the country. 

An aerial view of the Guangzhou South Station, one of China’s largest high-speed-railway hubs. Photo: Weibo via Guangzhou Daily
The nationwide web of high-speed railways in operation and being built as of the end of 2019. Photo: Handout

Almost two-thirds of the world’s high-speed railways in commercial operation with top speeds of at least 200 kilometers per hour are in China, according to estimates by Xinhua. China has by some estimates crammed half a century’s worth of feasibility studies, planning and construction into about a decade. 

But observers in and outside China wonder if the program may start to lose steam now that key nodes such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Wuhan, Zhengzhou and their environs are linked by a web of railways. 

Beijing is thus pivoting to the west, steering its investment to inland and far-western regions that have been left behind. The aim is to accelerate urbanization as well as economic recovery in the post-Covid era. 

Still, its plan to more than double the existing length nationwide and connect all cities with a population of half a million is way more ambitious than many expected.    

About 80% of the 700-plus county and prefecture-level cities throughout China from Xinjiang to Heilongjiang are above that population threshold, according to a 2019 census.

About 13 populous provinces including Guangdong, Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Shandong and Fujian will have all their prefecture-level cities served by high-speed lines within two years. 

Passengers pack the main station of Ningbo, a port and trading hub in eastern China, during this year’s Lunar New Year break. Photo: Asia Times

Beijing also aims to gain political and military mileage from more new lines, especially those that traverse long distances in Xinjiang, Tibet and other parts of western China. Authorities are promoting the economic upsides of more connectivity with more developed regions of the country.

The Western Theater Command of the People’s Liberation Army also noted on its WeChat account this month that an express rail link between Chengdu and Lhasa means troops and assets can be moved more efficiently into Tibet and along China’s long border with India and other countries.

The Western Theater Command is based in Chengdu and coordinates the PLA’s deployment along the Tibetan-Indian border, the scene of recent military skirmishes.

Comparisons are thus being made between the Chengdu-Lhasa line and the 1,700 kilometer strategically important Lanzhou-Urumqi Railway completed at the end of 2014.

The latter is a conduit for the PLA to ship weapons and personnel into the restive Xinjiang region to beef up border protection and for drills. 

The debt-laden China National Railway Corp, however, has given scant details about how all of the new lines will be funded, raising questions among some observers about the projects’ commercial viability.

It is provisionally believed that state lenders will provide funds for some of the construction while the national rail operator can deploy funds from its growing ticketing, advertising and investment revenues from its main routes in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou to fill funding gaps.