In a recent article, we explored the slow pace of high-speed rail (HSR) development in the United States and found that a combination of issues, from corporate greed to general bureaucracy, have been major obstacles. In stark contrast, there is no doubt that China has deployed HSR at a pace unlike any country so far in history.
China has laid about 19,000 km (roughly 12,000 miles) of HSR line in just nine years. And it has done so while pioneering new techniques and overcoming challenging obstacles, such as tunneling through mountains beneath the Great Wall. To learn more, we examined the country’s still rapidly expanding HSR infrastructure.
Building Fast Trains Fast
Though China was able to roll out its HSR network extremely quickly, that isn’t to say that HSR planning itself was fast. According to Cui Dianguo, chairman of CRRC Corporation Limited, former de facto chairman of China Deng Xiaoping was so impressed with Japan’s Shinkansen, the world’s first HSR railway, that he sought to have his own country develop HSR. Initial plans for an HSR line to connect Beijing and Shanghai were submitted in 1990, but it wasn’t until 2000 that planning began in earnest.
In the meantime, the country began improving its railways via the “Speed-Up” campaign, so that they could handle speeds that would increase from 48 km/h (30 mph) to 160 km/h (100 mph). The first HSR line was developed from the Guangzhou-Shenzhen Railway, which was kicked up to 160 km/h (99 mph) in 1994 as the first sub-HSR line using diesel trains.
In 1998, the track was electrified, and Swedish X 2000 trains allowed the line to reach 200 km/h (124 mph) and 220 km/h (137 mph) in some sections, qualifying it as a form of HSR (200 is often considered the minimum speed for HSR). By 2007, one-fifth of the country’s railway network had been made faster, with 3,002 km (1,865 mi) of track able to reach 200 km/h (124 mph) and 423 km (263 mi) reaching 250 km/h (155 mph).
The trains rely on electric multiple unit trainsets, that is, sets in which one or more of the cars includes motors without the need for a dedicated locomotive, as seen in diesel-powered trains. The tracks are ballastless, meaning that traditional wooden plank road ties have been abandoned in favor of long seamless slabs of concrete with built-in ties. Though up-front costs are greater with ballastless tracks, there is less long-term maintenance and more consistency throughout the track.
China was the first country to utilize Maglev technology , creating the fastest train in the world reaching up to 431 km/h (268 mph) and completing a 30.5 km (19.0 mi) trip in less than 7.5 minutes. However, Germany’s Transrapid Consortium, which developed the technology, refused to share technology and source information, raising the cost of the technology. As a result, conventional HSR technology was used. To learn more about conventional HSR, read our previous article on the topic.
After initially acquiring trains from French, German and Japanese trainset manufacturers, China developed its own train cars, often based on technology transfers from those original partners, which included Alstom, Siemens, Bombardier Transportation and a Kawasaki-led consortium.
It’s important to note that mixed-use tracks, such as those in China up until 2008, combine HSR with slower freight trains, ultimately slowing top HSR speeds to just 200–250 km/h (120–160 mph). To increase the train speed to 300–350 km/h (190–220 mph), it’s necessary to build passenger-dedicated lines (PDLs), which China began in 2008.
It was at this point that the “Mid-to-Long Term Railway Network Plan” (devised in 2004) initiated construction to link cities using cross-regional HSR lines, forming a nation-wide grid made up of four north-south and four east-west HSR corridors. While in most cases, existing lines were simply improved, as described above, in some cases, new tracks were built to connect cities that were previously unlinked.
By 2018, the HSR network spanned 26,869 km (16,696 mi) with plans to reach 38,000 km (23,612 mi) by 2025.
One HSR line in particular will feature the use of BIM across its entire life cycle. The 171-km-long line from Beijing to Zhangjiakou was built to make commuting easier during the 2022 Winter Olympic Games. China Railway Engineering Consulting Group Co., Ltd. (CRECG) relied on Bentley software to improve design efficiency, claiming that BIM reduced total design time by three months and ¥3 million.
The line consists of 10 stations, 10 tunnels, 64 bridges and 71 subsurface sections, including complex structures built in geologically challenging areas. The Badaling Tunnel, for instance, is 1.2 km long and the Badaling Great Wall Station, built beneath the Great Wall, is the largest underground rail station in China—at 470 meters long and with a maximum depth of 102 meters.
Among the key benefits of using Bentley’s Connected Data Environment is the ability to link disparate disciplines working on the project using a centralized information management system. CRECG was also able to optimize land use, model more efficiently due to the use of standardized and intelligent components, and perform important tasks such as collision detection.
CRECG also designed the Dali-Ruili Railway bridge and Gaoligong Mountain Rail Tunnel, representing the world’s longest span bridge and Asia’s longest tunnel at 3,400 feet and 21.4 miles, respectively.
To handle the complex terrains, the team created 3D models of geology, bridges and tunnels, using ProStructures for the steel truss bridge, MicroStation for the foundation and lands, OpenRoads in PowerCivil software to route the tunnel, LumenRT for 3D image processing, and ProjectWise for collaboration. Altogether, CRECG was able to complete the project 100 days faster than anticipated.
New HSR Configurations
Anthony Perl, professor of Urban Studies and Political Science at Simon Fraser University, noted that, given the speed with which China was able to deploy HSR, it was possible to study the impacts of the transportation infrastructure on local populations without too many external variables interfering in data interpretation. In particular, Perl performed research examining the effects that three different railway configurations had on different regions in the country, in terms of economic and population growth.
The three configurations that China used include two that already exist in Japan and Europe, as well as a completely new setup established in China alone:
Corridor mode (CM): This simple point A to point B configuration was first created in Japan with the Shinkansen, a single route that links Tokyo to Osaka.
Monocentric radial mode (MRM): This setup sees a central hub with lines radiating outward to smaller cities, as in the case of France’s Grande Vitesse network, in which the hub is located in Paris and other lines spring outward.
Multicore network mode (MNM): China’s newly developed mode connects multiple “supercities” in a way that is similar to how traditional metro and regional rail systems operate in other cities. This will be discussed in more depth below.
For each HSR line, Perl performed accessibility modeling to determine how accessible each station was along a given line, adding up the number of places one can reach on the line and dividing it by the travel time. He also looked at population and economic growth along those lines to determine the impacts of each configuration. Perl also compared the cities to potential HSR lines in the U.S., to predict how HSR might impact various regions in the country.
For the CM HSR that spans 921 km to connect the cities of Harbin and Dalian using 23 distinct train stations, Perl noted that accessibility was highest at the city of Shinyang, in the middle of the corridor because that is the point at which the line branches off in different directions. This means that, while before the installation of HSR, population growth was greatest at cities at either end of the corridor, population growth is now the most rapid in Shinyang.
Perl likened this route to the HSR corridor stretching from San Francisco to Los Angeles, which is now in development. If this line is able to get off the ground, California’s Central Valley could potentially see economic and population growth as people move to the area (now significantly less populated) and commute to cities like LA and San Francisco.
Perl called Wuhan, which features the MRM layout, the “Chicago of China,” with a population greater than 70 million people and a regional economy of over $500 billion. Before the deployment of HSR, the Wuhan region had uneven economic growth. With HSR, the region now has growth that is more evenly distributed. If such a layout were to be used in the U.S., the Midwest could see more evenly distributed growth as well.
The Yangtze River Delta region of China connects major cities within the provinces of Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang to form a “supercity” or “megalopolis.” Whereas traditional metro lines allow people around New York City to commute to Manhattan within the span of an hour, HSR allows the ~115 million residents of those municipalities to commute across 99,600 square kilometers, with each city located one hour apart by HSR. Shanghai is the densest and most accessible city in the loop, but growth rates are the highest at the periphery, where land is less expensive. Perl likened the region to a scenario in which San Francisco, Los Angeles and Las Vegas were all connected by HSR.
In the U.S., there are partnerships between large banks and the federal and state governments, but the links between government and financial institutions in China are obviously more closely connected. For the HSR projects, state-owned banks provided 40 to 50 percent of the financing, while the Ministry of Railway (MOR) covered 40 percent by issuing bonds (about ¥1 trillion or USD$150 billion in 2010 dollars for HSR construction from 2006 to 2010), and local governments covered the 10 to 20 percent remainder.
This stands in stark contrast to the U.S. In California, the wealthiest state in the nation, the federal government provided $6.25 billion for the state’s HSR project, while California footed $9 billion in bonds. The cost for the stretch of rail currently under construction, from Bakersfield to Merced, stands at about $12.4 billion. To complete the entire line from LA to San Francisco, cost estimates have ranged from $63.2 billion to $98.1 billion. In other words, China’s national government has covered 80 to 90 percent of the cost of its HSR, while the U.S. federal government has covered 6 to 10 percent of California’s line.
The bonds issued by the MOR are thought to be stable, given the fact that they are backed by the government; however, there is still the debt owed by the government to its own state-owned banks. The HSR network initially operated at a loss, with the Beijing-Tainjin line running at a loss of ¥1.2 billion in its first two years of operation, with a repayment period of 16 years.
In some cases, the HSR operators must make up for the losses, which are then subsidized by local governments. In the case of HSR in Henan province, municipalities will have to cover 70 percent of the debt, while the provincial government will provide the remaining 30 percent.
If the MOR (the state) can’t repay the loans, the (state-owned) banks will take over ownership of the railways. To put it simply, if the state can’t repay the loans, the state takes ownership? It’s at this point that you get into much larger discussions about modern monetary theoryand qualitative versus quantitative easing.
We may be able to see economic impacts of this internal-circulation of funds for China’s massive HSR project, especially in the long term, but what we can say for now is that this self-funding method did allow for 12,000 miles of HSR to get built in the near term. Worth noting is that, even if money is just a symbol printed on paper, the natural resources that the paper buys are very physical and large infrastructure projects necessarily have an impact on the physical environment.
Environmental Impacts of HSR
Much of the push for HSR has been for the potential climate benefits. Because the climate crisis now sees us with fewer than 11 years to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 45 percent (perhaps more and sooner, if recent methane emission estimates are taken into account), environmentalists have argued that HSR could be more sustainable than air and road travel.
HSR has severely reduced intercity airline travel in China, with regional flights cancelled as HSR took on twice as many passengers on a monthly basis compared to Chinese airlines, as of October 2013.
From an initial glance, these numbers appear promising in terms of their potential to reduce the impact of travel on global warming. One study, however, which examined the overall environmental impact of HSR deployment in China, found that 6.16 million hectares of arable land were used up by the new railway line. Additionally, the new railway lines actually increased travel demand and the goods needed to build the railway also increased CO2 emissions. The total emissions, however, were offset by the reduced emissions from substituting road travel for rail:
“The environmental impact in terms of CO2 emission is also substantial but negative, which is primarily due to induced demand,” the study explains. “From 2002 to 2013, rail investment in China has led to 26.75 million tons of CO2 emission, over 81 percent of which is caused by expansion of passenger rail service due to the large amount of induced demand. The output effect also contributes to an increase of CO2 emission primarily due to the increase of demand for intermediate goods used for rail project construction as well as the improvement of productivity. On the other hand, the study shows that the substitution effect of rail contributes to 35.52 million tons of CO2 reduction, which confirms that as more travel demand is substituted from road to rail, the level of CO2 emission declines. Overall, the nation’s inevitable increasing demand for modern transportation as an engine for its economic growth has been met by a relatively cleaner technology.”
Most importantly, deploying new infrastructure like HSR to tackle ecological collapse includes an assumption underlying nearly all debate regarding the climate crisis: that new solutions must be built rather than actually addressing the underlying cause and reducing emitting activities, industrial production and consumption.
A study on the UK’s HSR system, HS2, underscores this problem, highlighting the fact that carbon emitted to create HSR will not be “balanced out” with “carbon-saving” technology for many years (60 to 120 years in the case of HS2):
“In summary it can be seen that the carbon associated with construction amounts to about 5.6 Mt CO2e, and these are all incurred before HS2 opens over the 10 year construction period (2017–2026), whilst the net carbon savings (about 3 Mt CO2e) will all occur over the next 60 years,” the authors write. “Even after 70 years (2086), there will still be ‘residual carbon’ deficit of about 2.6 Mt CO2e, only balanced out over the next 60 years (2146). It should also be noted that the carbon costs associated with Phase 2 have also been calculated, but only a range can be given as the time horizon is obviously much longer and uncertain, and as the route has not been finalised. The figures are between 2.18 Mt CO2e and 7.7 Mt CO2e (in Temple-ERM (Temple-ERM and HS2 Ltd, 2013)). The carbon costs of construction are high, while those associated with the operation of the railway are low, yet both aspects require consideration.”
This brings up the problem with addressing the climate crisis in terms of greenhouse gas budgets at all. We ultimately may be able to reduce the CO2 emitted by our transportation sector, but the emissions released during the initial construction phase could have shorter term consequences that ultimately render those “carbon savings” pointless. For instance, if the CO2 released causes the polar ice caps to melt, raising the levels of the world’s seas and flooding HSR terminals, destroying habitats and ending lives within the 60 to 120 years it would take to “pay back” the carbon debt, then it would be hard to argue that such an infrastructure project would be worth it in the first place.
An evaluation of the impact of China’s HSR on animal habitats and ecology has proven difficult to find so far. The authors of the above study make similar claims about CO2 budgets as they do with regards to HS2’s destruction of habitats and biodiversity loss. They come to the conclusion that “with all mitigation, compensation and enhancement measures, cumulative effects on designated sites, habitats and species will be reduced to a level that is not significant.”
Climate change may be the environmental issue at the forefront of many people’s minds, but biodiversity loss is an equal if not greater threat that cannot be mitigated with renewable energy and electrification. Though HSR has been shown to impact animal habitats more directly, the noise of these trains alone could disrupt ecosystems.
While China may not have the highest per capita or historical emissions—titles that belong to the U.S.—it does have the highest emissions at the moment, followed by the U.S., and HSR could help bring these down over the long term. The benefits of industrial production and consumption for every country, however, must be balanced with their impact on the surrounding ecosystem, without which there would be no production or consumption to be enjoyed.