Old Version

The rapid expansion of China’s high-speed rail network has seen a growing number of local governments contend for the booming business

Gravy Train

The rapid expansion of China’s high-speed rail network has seen a growing number of local governments contend for the booming business

By NewsChina Updated Oct.1

Attention please. We are arriving at the city of Puyang. Passengers who are going to alight here, please make your way to the doors and get ready to jump,” goes a joke that recently went viral online among residents of Puyang, in central China’s Henan Province. 

It spread after an editorial in the Puyang Daily, the Party mouthpiece of the local government, on August 7, 2017, questioned China Railway Corporation (CR), China’s railway operator, about why the Beijing-Kowloon high-speed route currently in its planning phase would not stop at Puyang. 

In recent years, competition for high-speed railway lines and stops among local governments has frequently hit the headlines. Such lines bring a raft of benefits to local governments, who tend to treat the projects as a “tangible resource,” meaning a political achievement. 

What about Puyang?  

Puyang residents told our reporter that they hoped the high-speed railway line would have a stop in the city of 4 million. It was not until March 2016 that the city opened its first passenger railway line, to Zhengzhou, the capital city of Henan Province, making it the last city in the province to have a State-owned passenger train.  
In July 2016, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), CR and the Ministry of Transport jointly released their medium- and long-term plans for high-speed trains. The Beijing-Kowloon railway line that links the Chinese capital with Hong Kong covering a distance of 2,400 kilometers became a focus of attention.  
According to the plan, the railway line will pass three cities in Shandong Province instead of the city of Puyang across the border in Henan. An article in the Puyang Daily said the section in Shandong Province is at risk from the unstable embankment of the Yellow River and numerous abandoned coal mines. In addition, three major coal mines that have recently obtained mining licenses will have to be compensated with an additional investment of 2 billion yuan (US$300 million).  
On August 8, 2017, the Railway Construction Coordination Office in Puyang published an open letter saying that the Henan provincial government had contacted CR to appeal for a station.  
NewsChina tried to contact CR for more details but was told that a news release had gone out that day. The announcement said the railway line that links Zhengzhou with Jinan, capital city of Shandong Province, had been under construction since the end of 2016 and 680 million yuan (US$100 million) had been invested. A railway line from Zhengzhou to Jinan with a stop in Puyang is expected to be finished in 2021. As for the information regarding the Beijing-Kowloon project, however, there are no details.  
Cutthroat Competition   

The advent of bullet trains has exerted a profound impact on Chinese society and the economy. Several experts interviewed by NewsChina argued that along with the explosive growth of the bullet train network, high-speed trains had become an obvious political and economic resource and many local governments were trying to cut themselves a slice of the pie.   
A former senior engineer of the China Academy of Railway Sciences told our reporter on condition of anonymity that it is now common for local governments to squabble for high-speed projects. He added that bullet train projects are equated to government performance standards, and while many government officials and the public know little about bullet trains, they still regard them as a panacea for an area’s economic or development issues.   
This engineer has participated in many evaluation meetings on high-speed projects and says that it is not uncommon for local governments to disagree with rail authorities regarding routes and stops. One thing that struck him in particular was when local government officials once criticized the expert panel for “discrimination.”   
Zhong Zhangdui, a professor at Beijing Jiaotong University, told NewsChina that bullet trains provide high passenger capacity and “the recent fight for bullet train resources reflects that China’s rapidly growing high-speed transportation network is struggling to meet demand.”   
Zhang argued that it is obvious that bullet trains could boost economic growth, passenger flow, logistics, city image and real estate construction. Many officials depend on bullet trains to improve the economic performance of their region. Official statistics show that roughly 1.5 billion high-speed passenger trips were made in 2016. China’s high-speed railway network is the largest in the world to date, accounting for roughly two-thirds of the world’s high-speed rail tracks in 2016.   
In addition to Puyang’s fight for a train stop, several other cities have joined the brawl over the years. During the 2016 Two Sessions (China’s annual parliamentary congress), Bi Xiaobin, mayor of the city of Liu’an, Anhui Province, who is also a deputy of the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s top legislature, raised a proposal suggesting the Beijing-Kowloon route serve a stop in his city. One year later, 31 NPC deputies from Shandong Province jointly submitted a bill, pressing for a stop in Liangshan County, Shandong.   
In the bullet train battle, competition is growing more fierce between adjacent cities. The cities of Jingzhou and Jingmen in Hubei Province have both been vying for a train stop. The Yangtze River Chamber of Commerce in Jingzhou created a public petition, saying that “without bullet trains, cities are nothing but scattered pearls. With bullet trains, cities become pearls on a necklace.”   
During the planning of the Zhengzhou-Chongqing bullet train project, the neighboring cities of Shiyan and Xiangyang in Hubei Province were competing for a train stop. Both cities’ Party chiefs went to Beijing to lobby. Chen Tianhui, then Party chief of Shiyan, said that bullet trains would be a lifeline for Shiyan. Tang Zhisheng, then Party chief of Xiangyang, visited the Ministry of Railways, the predecessor of the CR, and asked to add Xiangyang to the list of train stops. On September 29, 2014, the NDRC ratified the Zhengzhou-Chongqing railway line and Xiangyang secured the train stop.  
Apart from the consideration of government accomplishments, pressure also comes from the public. When the Shanghai-Kunming high-speed rail was in the planning stage, the cities of Shaoyang and Loudi in Hunan Province petitioned for a stop. Over 100,000 residents of Shaoyang took to the streets in May 2015 and shouted slogans along the lines of “the Party chief and mayors should step down if we don’t get high-speed trains.” The railway line will now have stops in both cities.   
A senior official in Shaoyang told Xinhua news agency that senior officials in the city at that time met every day in their efforts to secure a train stop. According to an article in Xinmin Weekly, Ren Runtang, deputy director of the CR’s evaluation center, cautioned the panel of experts that they should concentrate on the bullet train itself, and not be distracted by other factors.   
The Buck Stops Where?    

Dong Yan, a researcher with NDRC’s Institute of Comprehensive Transportation, told our reporter that not all cities are suitable for high-speed trains, particularly smaller, less economically-developed cities, because it would take decades to turn a profit on the infrastructure. He said that is why experts and engineers from railway authorities conduct a survey first.    
After a preliminary survey is made, the findings are sent to the CR’s Evaluation Center before a final report is drafted based on factors including safety, cost and economic concerns. According to Wang Mengsu, an academician at the Chinese Academy of Engineering, it is a professional procedure and neither the NDRC nor provincial governments have the right to intervene.    
“Local governments can offer their suggestions on the establishment of railway lines and stops but the CR has the final say over the construction of any trunk lines. As for the branch lines, local governments tend to have a louder voice,” he said.    
A former senior engineer with the China Academy of Railway Sciences told NewsChina that those planning railway lines and train stops have to consider factors including the overall rail network, regional development planning, status and functions of the city, passenger volume and road transportation capacity. What’s more, bullet trains have to weigh the benefits of speed against cost.    
He said that the Beijing-Tianjin high-speed railway has a length of more than 100 kilometers without a stop. It was designed to run at 200km/h but to better facilitate the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, the railway line was constructed with a speed of 350km/h and the investment was increased to 20 billion yuan (US$3 billion) from 10 billion yuan (US$1.5 billion). “The travel time from Beijing to Tianjin was cut by only nine minutes and the loss outweighed the gain, leading to ticket price rises and years of losses,” he said.    
He added that it is the responsibility of railway planning authorities to map out railway lines and stops, but railway experts should communicate with local governments and the general public more positively in a bid to meet demands from all sides.    
“I have joined quite a few evaluation meetings and for each problem there will be a solution. Most local governments could take the overall situation into consideration and the NDRC plays an authoritative role,” he said.    
Wang Mengsu told our reporter that major high-speed railway lines should always be constructed at the national level, but the branch lines could be operated by local governments, which is the best way to quieten down the quarrel over railway lines.    
Zhong Zhangdui, however, argued that a single high-speed railway cannot solve all the problems of the towns that get stops, and the future way out lies in an increased investment in an intercity railway network to meet the demands of more cities.    
The recent government work report revealed that 800 billion yuan (US$120 billion) will be invested in bullet train projects in 2017. The overall transportation plan released by the State Council, China’s cabinet, showed that by the end of 2020, China’s bullet trains will cover 80 percent of cities that have a population over one million.