Varies types of bullet trains cruise into Shanghai Hongqiao Station, one of China’s largest high-speed rail nodes. China already boasts the world’s most extensive high-speed rail network. Photo: Asia Times

Chinese cadres in charge of railways and public transport have cued up yet another high-speed rail building boom, a plan now being considered by China’s parliament that seeks to expand the total national network by 12,100 kilometers to 50,000 km by 2025.

Drafted by the Transport Ministry under orders from top leaders, the master plan seeks to construct an even more sprawling, multi-layer high-speed network that extends to the nation’s farthest reaches. 

Once scrutinized and endorsed by the delegates of the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s top legislative body, the railway blueprint will be incorporated into the broader 14th Five-Year Plan. 

Bullet trains are seen inside a depot. China’s total length of high-speed railways nearly doubled in the past five years and the expansion is set to continue. Photo: Asia Times

China’s high-speed network has almost doubled from 19,800km in 2015 to last year’s 37,900 km. China defines “high-speed” as traveling at 200 kilometers per hour or faster.

Lu Dongfu, president of China Railway Corporation and an NPC deputy, was quoted by Xinhua as saying that Beijing had expedited more than 3 trillion yuan (US$460 billion) in spending on new train arteries for the next five years to keep construction momentum.

He said that 98% of counties and towns with a population of half a million throughout China would be accessible via high-speed lines by the end of the next five-year building spree.

At the same time, Lu revealed a 39% drop in train passengers nationwide in 2020 due to the pandemic. The railway operator expects to have clawed back some lost revenues with trains expected to be packed again after the Lunar New Year, with an average of 7.4 million passengers on the go on any given day in the second half of February. 

During Friday’s opening plenum of the NPC, neither Lu nor Transport Minister Li Xiaopeng responded to questions from reporters about funding issues, shortfalls in passenger numbers and investment returns on the already built lines.

The national railway operator is yet to report its earnings for 2020, but 2019’s figure hit a record of 1.2 trillion yuan with a net profit of 42.6 billion. 

Any doubts about the financial viability of new high-speed building projects are not expected to be seriously debated at the NPC. But analysts have questions about how long it will take for new lines penetrating into the country’s far west to recoup hefty investments.

A new funding formula, however, will come with the commissioning of a new 350km/hour feeder line in the eastern Zhejiang province later this year, where all the investment will come from the private not public sector. 

An aerial view of the Guangzhou South Station, one of China’s largest high-speed-railway stations. Photo: Xinhua
China’s high-speed rail network has expanded rapidly in the past decade. Photo: AFP

Lu teased NPC representatives on Sunday during a panel discussion on a project named CR450 which referred to the development of ultrafast locomotives and coaches that could cruise at 450km/hour, more than a third of the speed of sound. He said 350km/hour lines, currently the backbone of China’s rail network, would need only minimal upgrades for the new trains.  

China Railway Corp is currently locked in a race against airlines to lure passengers on short-to-medium routes, including those commuting between major urban centers such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen.

Travel time from Beijing to Shanghai’s city center to city center could be further trimmed to about 2.5 hours if the CR450 prototype can be commercialized within five years. That will roughly be the time needed to fly, but rail passengers are spared the prolonged security checks and trips to and from airports.  

According to the new railway master plan, the new CR450 trains will also ply the existing and future lines now zigging, zagging and looping around China’s conurbation clusters with Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Chengdu and Chongqing designated as cores destinations.

Beijing’s revived penchant for futuristic technologies is also seen in maglev trains. The railway plan includes long-term maglev projects linking Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong. The Shanghai Express, China’s only commercial maglev line, is currently loss-making.

Lu said during a group discussion with NPC members from the transport sector that headway must be made on trialing and commercializing frontier technologies and that he expected to launch one or two pilot maglev projects in the next five years.

Amid heated debate, state media including China News Weekly on Monday cited Guangdong provincial officials denying reports and posts claiming work on a maglev line between Guangzhou and Shenzhen would start soon.

While acknowledging the rising need for fast commuting between key cities, the magazine noted maglev lines were hugely expensive to build and operate and thus warned of the frivolity of chasing top speeds for speed’s sake.  

A prototype locomotive using high-temperature superconducting maglev technology was rolled out in southwest China’s Chengdu City. The train is touted to one day go faster than 600 km/h, about the same as a jetliner. Credit: Xinhua.

A Beijing Jiaotong University professor told Asia Times that since the railway master plan carried the aspirations of top leaders, NPC delegates were expected to approve most, if not all, of the high-speed projects including new maglev line research programs.

The academic, who requested anonymity, said Beijing was less concerned if a specific line could turn a profit because top leaders were convinced that the benefits of key infrastructure must not be measured only by commercial rates of return on investment.

“If we only talk about how much money can we recoup, then perhaps the 1,786km, 250km/h line between Xinjiang’s Urumqi and Gansu’s provincial capital Lanzhou should have never been built, but the line has been up and running since 2014,” said the professor.

“Now construction on a line between Chengdu and Lhasa in Tibet that cuts across the Tibetan plateau is being revved up, and how much money is that going to make? Not too much but the broader benefits from a new railway can be enormous.”