How China’s high-speed rail network got built so fast

(CNN) — China had no high-speed railways at the beginning of the 21st century. Slow and often uncomfortable trains plodded across this vast country with low average speeds, making journeys such as Shanghai-Beijing a test of travel endurance. Today, it’s an entirely different picture. The world’s most populous nation has — by some distance — the world’s largest network of high-speed railways. No fewer than 37,900 kilometers (about 23,500 miles) of lines crisscross the country, linking all of its major mega-city clusters, and all have been completed since 2008. Half of that total has been completed in the last five years alone, with a further 3,700 kilometers due to open in 2021.
The network is expected to double in length again, to 70,000 kilometers, by 2035. With maximum speeds of 350 kph (217 mph) on many lines, intercity travel has been transformed, and airlines’ dominance has been broken on the busiest routes. By 2020, 75% of Chinese cities with 500,000 or more had high-speed rail ink. Spain has Europe’s most extensive high-speed network and occupies second place in the global league table. It is a minnow compared to over 2,000 miles of dedicated lines built for operation at over 250 kph. In contrast, the UK currently has just 107 kilometers while the United States has only one rail route that (just about) qualifies for high-speed status — Amtrak’s North East Corridor, where Acela trains currently top out at 240 kph on expensively rebuilt sections of the existing line shared with commuter and freight trains.

A symbol of economic power

China aims to make high-speed rail the mode of choice for domestic long-distance travel, but these new railways have a much greater significance. Much like Japan’s Shinkansen in the 1960s, they symbolize its economic power, rapid modernization, growing technological prowess, and increasing prosperity. For China’s ruling Communist Party and its leader, Xi Jinping, high-speed rail is also a powerful tool for social cohesion, political influence, and integrating disparate regions with distinct cultures into the mainstream.

“Building these new railways forms part of Xi Jinping’s grand plan of ‘integrating the vast national market,'” says Dr. Olivia Cheung, a research fellow at the China Institute of the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). “It is also meant to reflect his ‘new development philosophy,’ of which ‘coordinated development’ is crucial.

“His scheme is grand in that it extends beyond simply connecting existing towns, but existing towns with new mega-towns constructed from scratch. Xi takes great pride in a famous example, the Xiong’an New Area in Hebei province, around 60 miles southwest of Beijing.” In that sense, it could be argued that China is repeating railway history; many early railways in North America, Europe, and the colonies of the European empires were built with similar goals.

The development of railway networks in Russia — most notably the Trans-Siberian Railway — Prussia, France, Italy, and the British Empire, among others, were strongly influenced by political and military demands and economic development. However, what took decades in the 19th and early 20th centuries is being achieved by China in just a few years. With 37,900 kilometers of lines, China has the world’s largest network of high-speed railways. Wang He/Getty Images AsiaPac/Getty Images

“The Chinese have created an entire high-speed rail network on an unprecedented scale — often faster and certainly more reliable than Chinese domestic flights,” says rail travel expert Mark Smith, better known as “The Man in Seat 61.” “It’s hard not to be impressed by the sheer size of some of the new stations and by the efficiency with which the system moves vast numbers of people, all with a reserved seat and increasingly without the need for paper tickets, just a scan of an ID card or passport at the ticket gates.”
China initially relied on high-speed technology imported from Europe and Japan to establish its network. Global rail engineering giants such as Bombardier, Alstom, and Mitsubishi were understandably keen to cooperate, given the potential size of the new market and China’s ambitious plans. However, domestic companies have developed into world leaders in high-speed train technology and engineering over the last decade, thanks to the astonishing expansion of their home network.
Gemma Broadhurst
I am a writer by profession, and I love to write in my spare time. I am one of the most experienced writer for newspriest. I always make sure that whatever is written on my blog is 100% genuine and true. I am a University of Florida graduate pursuing a Master's degree.

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