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China plans world's 2nd largest high-speed rail line in Chennai

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by April 23, 2016 General

Panels manufactured by US computer maker Dell line up the control centre of the China Railway Corporation (CRC), providing real-time data on the movement of 7,000 passenger trains – half of them the famed high-speed ones – and 20,000 cargo trains daily.

Zhuang He, head of the control centre, is unfazed when asked about the 78 panels, lit up by blue and red lines that show the positions of the trains. “We have no problem buying from America. Ours is an integrated international purchase system. Whoever offers the best deal, we go for it,” he tells a group of visiting journalists from India and major ASEAN countries.

It is clear that quality and speed are the mainstay of the CRC, specifically, the High Speed Railway (HSR). After developing the world’s biggest HSR network – at 19,000 km it is longer than all of world’s high-speed lines put together – China is now looking for opportunities in neighbouring countries, including India, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Indonesia.

Stung by the worst-ever economic growth in 25 years, China is making an aggressive attempt to woo these countries and sell its HSR technology. While India has tied up with Japan for its first high-speed train to run on a 505-km track between Mumbai and Ahmedabad, China is keen to work on other proposed routes. It is carrying out feasibility studies for high-speed lines on the 2,200-km Chennai-New Delhi route and the 1,200-km long New Delhi-Mumbai corridor.

Zhao Guotang, vice general engineer of CRC, told ET the feasibility studies were “progressing well” and it hoped to do business with India in the near future. The proposed Chennai-New Delhi corridor could be the second-largest in the world, after the 2,298 km-long Beijing-Guangzhou line, which was launched three years ago.

India accepted Japan’s offer for its first high-speed train because of easy loan terms offered by Tokyo. While the Chinese may not offer concessional and easy loan terms, they claim their expertise and technology is compatible with that of India and other Southeast Asian countries. Zhao said it’s not just about the terms, it’s also about the speed with which the project is executed.

Comparing the Chinese HSR with that of competitors, he said that while China made over 1,000 km of such tracks in the past decade, Japan made 350 km and France managed 320 km.

However, where average speed is concerned, Japanese trains run at between 240 and 320 kmph, whereas the Chinese ones are designed to go up to 250 kmph. Maglev (magnetic levitation) trains have achieved faster speeds in both countries.

“We share a lot of similarities with India and other Southeast Asian countries in terms of the large population and the fact we are all developing countries,” Zhao said.

The issues and problems that China overcame while developing its HSR are similar to what India presently faces. “I am aware of the ongoing debate in India – whether it makes financial sense to go in for expensive HSR when there are so many problems plaguing the conventional railway system. Also, whether the HSR will ever earn profits considering the high price of tickets,” Zhao said.

The proposal to go in for HSR was met with the same scepticism in China. However, it didn’t take too long for the HSR lines in China to run into green from red. The Nanchang-Shanghai line started generating profit in the first year of operations. The 1,318-km Beijing-Shanghai HSR started earning money in the third year. “Last year, it made a profit of over 6 billion renminbi ($927 million) and this year, it is hoped it will exceed 10 billion RMB,” Zhao said.

He admitted that China relied heavily on non-fare revenue, too, for earnings from the railways. They leased out land for shops and other commercial activities, exactly what India has been trying to achieve, as announced by railway minister Suresh Prabhu during the budget.

Apart from resistance to HSR, there were other similarities between problems faced by India and China. Land acquisition to build new lines and railway structures was one and competition from other transport sectors such as highways and airlines was another.

Zhao said China had done a lot of work on resettling those whose land had been taken by the government. “We had major problems. People resisted and so did the local governments. It was not easy getting each and everyone on board,” he explained.

Comparing the pricing of tickets of various modes of transport, the Chinese railway chief said the fare for a regular passenger train is 10 cents per km, while second class on HSR costs 48 cents per km and first class costs 80 cents. An air ticket, on average, came to about 1 RMB per km.

While acknowledging that HSR rates were high, Zhao said this was after airlines had been forced to lower their rates since they were losing out to HSR.

Arguing in favour of HSR, Zhao said the benefits by far exceeded the problems. He talked about the “one-city effect” brought about by HSR, which integrated cities in a seamless manner. “HSR is not magic but I should say it is needed for the country’s economic and social development. It is a good thing and we are happy to share our experiences with other countries,” Zhao said.

(The correspondent visited China on an invitation of the Chinese Railway Corporation and Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

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