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Railways

While China’s rail network, at 76,600km, is today the world’s third longest after those in the US and Russia, it remains fundamentally backward and inadequate. Given the mainland’s huge population, railway freight traffic density is three times higher in China than it is in the US and, with industrial output continuing to grow at a strong rate, lack of investment in rail infrastructure has left rail transport unable to match the pace of China’s economic growth.

As a result, although the volume of freight carried by train is currently growing at an annual rate of 11.6 per cent, the 2.87bn tons shifted in 2006 represented just 35 per cent of rail freight demand, according to official estimates. And the trend continues to worsen, with more and more traffic driven to alternative channels, in particular onto roads. Rail carried just 13 per cent of China’s freight traffic in 2005, compared with 45 per cent in 1970, according to the Asian Development Bank. By contrast, the amount of freight traffic carried by road rose to 75 per cent in 2005, up from just 38 per cent in 1970.

In recent years, growing demand for consumer goods across China has led to an acute need to establish long-distance supply chains between factories and domestic cities. Getting freight the 2,000km up the Yangtze from Shanghai to Chongqing on the chaotic and overcrowded rail network can take as long as 10 days – almost as long as it takes to ship containers across the Pacific to the west coast of America.

The main reason for this is that priority is given to trains carrying almost anything other than manufactured goods. Coal and iron ore are the biggest priorities. With agricultural products and passengers also pulling rank, conventional industrial products have become second-class citizens on an already overloaded network.

The looming crisis inherent in this situation eventually came to a head in 2004, when ballooning demand for energy in China’s industrial centres coincided with a shortfall in generating capacity and the failure of the rail system to deliver enough coal to power stations.

This disastrous episode finally drove home to the authorities the extent of their longstanding neglect of the country’s rail network and precipitated a huge increase in railway investment that continues today. In November 2008, Lu Chunfang, Vice-Minister of the Railway Ministry, said that investment in railways in the fourth quarter of 2008 would exceed Rmb150bn, which will account for nearly half the full-year total of Rmb350bn.

The goals of the new rail blueprint go well beyond the need simply to increase the overall length of track. To begin with, authorities have plans to implement a wholesale programme of modernisation by increasing the proportion of double-tracked and electrified rail to 50 per cent of the total. In addition, they have begun building separate lines for freight and passenger services on the most important routes. New freight locomotives are also on order.

In the past, most of China’s long-distance rail routes have been constructed on a north-south axis (emanating from Beijing) and tend to transit provinces on or near the coast. In order to redress this imbalance, and also to further the cause of the government‘s ‘Go West’ campaign, which aims to improve living conditions in China’s interior provinces, the central government is committed to building a number of new east-west routes across the country, as well as large amounts of new track in western China itself, where the network will increase by 12,500km to some 40,000km by 2020. About 7,000km of this new track is due for completion by 2010.
     
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