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China plans five-year leap forward of railway development
2006-09-30

 

By Wang Hui, China Features

Powerful engine pulled passenger compartments for the first time into Lhasa, the remote capital of Southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region, on July 2. The train had traveled along the 1,956-km Qinghai-Tibet Railway at a speed of 120 km per hour to conquer the "roof of the world".

The maiden train run on the world's most elevated tracks, 5,072 meters above the sea level at one point and more than 4,000 meters above the sea level for 960 kilometers, was hailed as an engineering marvel in world railway history and a dream-come-true for China's railway constructors.

But for Chinese railway planners, this is only the beginning of a new five-year drive to modernize the country's railway transportation systems that serve one fifth of the world's population.

Ambitious plans

China's Minister of Railways Liu Zhijun says that in the five years from now to 2010, China will build 19,800 kilometers of new railway lines, modernize 15,000 kilometers of existing railway lines, boost passenger train speed to 200 km per hour with fast trains traveling at more than 300 km an hour, and increase the load of freight trains with a single engine hauling over 5,000 tons.

Under the railway development plan approved by the Chinese government, every year 4,000 kilometers of new tracks will be laid, 3,000 kilometers of existing tracks electrified, and more fast passenger trains, including the maglev trains, and large capacity freight trains introduced.

Liu says he hopes that by 2010, China's railway networks will be able to carry 30 percent more passengers and 30 percent more freight to alleviate the heavy demand for railway transportation.

As a developing country, China relies heavily on railways -- the cheapest means of mass transportation. Statistics show that in China, the energy consumption ratio of transportation by air, road and railways is 11:8:1. So at present, the transportation of 75 percent of coal, 66 percent of ore, 62 percent of iron and steel, as well as 56 percent of grain is done by the railways in the country.

China now has 75,000 kilometers of railways, with 6,500 kilometers built in the last five years. China's economy has been developing at an annual rate of more than 9 percent on average, but the length of its railways grows at a much slower speed, with a mere 9.5 percent increase in five years.

"We have been using 6 percent of the world's operational railways to move 23 percent of the total people and freight transported by the world's railway systems each year," Liu says.

Speed raises

To increase railway transportation capacity, China has continuously increased the speed of both its passenger and freight trains. Since 1997, China has raised its train speed for five times, boosting passenger train speed on 22,100 km of tracks to 120 km/hr, on 14,000 km of tracks to 160 km/hr and on 5,370 km of tracks to 200 km/hr. The speed of freight trains on the above-mentioned tracks has also been raised to 120 km/hr.

Before the speed raises, China's trains used to travel at 60 km/hr.

Liu says that the fifth speed raising launched in 2004 alone has increased the passenger and freight transportation capacity of China's railway networks by 18.5 percent and 15 percent, respectively.

China is now preparing for the sixth train speed raising. He Wuhua, chief engineer with the Ministry of Railways, said the target of the sixth speed raising, scheduled to take place this year, is to extend the tracks that accommodate trains running at 200 km/hr by 6,000 kilometers.

In the next five years, Liu says, China will further raise the speed of passenger trains to 200 km/hr on another 13,000 km of the existing rail tracks, in addition to building dedicated lines to passenger trains. He adds that the speed of freight trains on all tracks will be raised to 120 km/hr by 2010.

Despite repeated speed raises, the transportation capacity of China's railways still lags far behind the need of the country's booming economy.

According to statistics released by Chinese Railways, a trade magazine, passenger trains in China provide only 2.41 million seats but sell 3.05 million tickets a day (4.2 million tickets at peak days), leaving many passengers no choice but to stand in the aisles; railway transportation authorities can provide 110,000 freight cars a day, but the nation's daily average demand for freight cars is 280,000, with over 60 percent of the demand left unsatisfied.

Dedicated Lines

To meet the increasing demand for railway transportation, railway planners have called for the building of high-speed dedicated passenger railway lines and the shifting of all freight transportation to the existing tracks.

In 1999, China started to build its first passenger-train-only railway. The 404-km Qin-Shen railway went into service in 2003, with a designed train speed at 200 km/hr and a rushing speed at 300 km/hr.

Liu says in the next five years, China will build 9,800 km of dedicated passenger railway lines, or 50 percent of the new lines to be built in the country. Of the 9,800-km dedicated passenger railway lines, 5,457 km will accommodate trains running at a speed above 300 km/hr.

The Ministry of Railways has announced that it will soon start the construction of a 1,318-km dedicated railway line linking Beijing to Shanghai, which allows trains to run at 350 km per hour.

Wang Yongping, a spokesman with the Ministry of Railways, says the fast train service to be launched by 2010 will cut train trips between Beijing and Shanghai from the current 14 hours to only five hours.

"The Beijing-Shanghai dedicated passenger line can relieve the existing tracks of the heavy pressure from passenger transportation, thus increasing the freight transport capacity of the existing tracks by 50 million tons a year," says Ji Jialun, a professor with Beijing Transportation University.

The Chinese government has also approved the construction of a maglev passenger railway between Shanghai and Hangzhou with German technology. Train speed on the 175-km maglev line is expected to reach 450 km/hr, cutting the 2-hour-and-20-minute trip to only 30 minutes.

Heavy Loading Cars

To increase the freight transportation capacity of the railways, China will introduce 70-ton freight cars which carry more goods than the 60-ton freight cars presently in use.

According to the plan of the Ministry of Railways, China will roll out 70-ton cars for general use, 80-ton cars for coal and 100-ton cars for ore, iron and steel in the next five years.

The adoption of heavy loading freight cars can help reduce the length of a train set, making it possible for existing railway station platforms to accommodate heavy hauling trains.

"We will produce 1,000 more engines that can pull 5,000 tons of goods and run at 120 km an hour in the next five years," Liu says.

China's six major railway trunk lines now all have 5,000-ton freight train service. The Ministry of Railways is even running 10,000-ton freight trains on the Da-Qin Railway, with a designed annual transportation capacity of 100 million tons. The line's actual annual transportation volume reached 203 million tons in 2005.

China will also develop railway container transportation, making 10,000 km of tracks able to accommodate double-deck container transportation, and establishing an annual capacity of 10 million TEUs.

Liu says that to realize the planned leap-forward in railway development, China will invest 1.25 trillion yuan (150 billion U.S. dollars) in the next five years. He adds that the country will mainly rely on domestic technology and manufacturing in railway development, though it also needs to import some key, advanced technologies from abroad.

Sun Zhang, a professor with the Shanghai-based Tongji University, holds that even in five years, China's railway networks will still lag behind those in the developed countries. He says that Germany, with a land territory smaller than Yunnan, a province in Southwest China, boasts 45,000 km of railways, nearly half of the overall railway length China expects to have in five years.

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