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Published: Monday September 1, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Monday September 1, 2014 MYT 8:42:52 AM

China's superlative rail network

China leads the way in the longest, largest and fastest transportation systems.

EVERYONE knows about the Great Wall of China, widely considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient Age. Snaking for several thousands of kilometres when it was finally joined together over hundreds of years, the wall came to symbolise a united China, especially during the reign of Qin Shihuang (260BCE–210BCE), the first emperor, and onwards.

In the last 20 years, China has been building a different kind of linkage: a massive rail network, both between as well as within cities (where the system is called the metro).

This network, already the world’s second longest (next to the one in the United States), has chugged along at full steam in the last two decades and is now hurtling along at breakneck speed in China’s haste to modernise.

Li Jianbin has seen China's tunnelling industry grow from being a mere importer of foreign equipment to an exporter of services.
Li Jianbin has seen China’s tunnelling industry grow from being a mere importer of foreign equipment to an exporter of services.

Once upon a time

Rail development in China first began in the late 19th century during the final legs of the Qing Dynasty (which pretty much ended by the time of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900).

The first railroad was the Woosung Road, which began service in July 1876 in glitzy Shanghai, with a 15km line connecting the edge of Shanghai’s American Concession in the present-day Zhabei District with Woosung in the present-day Baoshan District.

This was followed by other lines in the period between 1895 and 1911.

The Qing’s defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), ironically, worked as a stimulus for more railroad building after the Chinese understood the importance of rail transport during times of war.

Of course, Western powers also twisted the arm of the Qing when it was weak to secure rights to construct railways in China, along with other privileges such as settlement or mining along the railway. By 1911, there were around 9,000km of rail in China. From the 1890s to 1905, nearly all railways in China were planned, financed, built and operated by foreigners, with approval from the Qing Government.

By the time of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1942-1945), the Chinese mainland already had 27,000km of rail. Malaysia, which is 29 times smaller than China, has 1,700km of intercity rail today.

Chugging into the modern era

Modernisation in China did not just come in the form of rail mileage, but also in terms of propulsion. During the 1980s and 1990s, diesel and electric locomotives gradually replaced steam engines on the main lines that ran on coal or firewood.

The “official” end of the steam era in China came in December 2005 when the world’s last regular mainline steam train finished its journey on the Jitong railway, a 945km route in Inner Mongolia that had opened in 1995.

In 2004, China’s State Council, while deliberating its mid-to-long term railway development plans, opted for the conventional track high-speed railway (HSR) technology for the Beijing–Shanghai route, as well as three other north-south high-speed rail lines.

In 2007, China opened its first HSR line using imported trainsets. Since then, it has rapidly made great strides, to the extent that the Chinese can now make the trainsets themselves, without any foreign technical assistance.

With trains travelling at an average speed of close to 300kph, China’s HSR network is now the world’s longest, stretching over 7,500km. This is only the beginning, as China plans to expand the network to over 16,000km by 2020.

Many of its HSR lines are passenger-dedicated, meaning these trains do not share the track with slower-moving cargo trains. In 1993, commercial train service in China averaged only 48kph, a speed that is no longer tolerated in China’s haste to be a superpower.

Not content with mere high-speed lines, on Oct 19, 2010, its (then) Ministry of Railways announced that the country is looking into the development of “super-speed” railway technology with which trainsets could top 500kph.

No, this isn't the bridge of a starship, it is the futuristic cockpit of a Chinese high-speed train.
No, this isn’t the bridge of a starship, it is the futuristic cockpit of a Chinese high-speed train.

Achieving the (almost) impossible

Hitting speeds of 300kph and above could only be realised by having relatively straight rail alignments.

“Straightness” is achieved by separating the track from other infrastructure like roads and pipelines as well as other railway tracks – this naturally calls for an extensive network of viaducts and tunnels.

Viaducts also help lessen the need for land to be acquired, as the void between the pillars or piers of the viaducts can still be utilised; China’s civil engineering prowess is such that viaducts can be built in some of the most hostile places on earth, such as the frigid ground over which the Xining-Golmud-Lhasa (the world’s highest railway line) has to pass.

When it comes to mountains, there is no escaping tunnels if the high speed of the train is to be maintained.

“Tunnels were less of a concern in the northern and southern rail connections of China, as the tracks generally passed across relatively flat terrain. However, tunnels were crucial when it came to connecting the eastern, or coastal, part of China with the western part as mountains stand in the way,” says Li Jianbin, a professor in the field of mechanical engineering.

Li, 52, who joined the railway business in 1982, is now chairman of China Railway Tunnel Equipment Manufacturing Co Ltd, currently China’s largest tunnel-boring machine (TBM) manufacturer.

Having worked as a tunnelling engineer for 28 years in China, he has seen China’s tunnelling industry take baby steps from being a mere importer of foreign equipment until it has developed enough competency to export its services as a tunnelling contractor.

China's expertise in tunnelling is being brought to bear in Malaysia. This image is of a Chinese tunnel-boring machine excavating the second longest portion of the 9.5km-long MRT tunnels in Kuala Lumpur. (Inset) This image shows a portion of an almost finished tunnel.
China’s expertise in tunnelling is being brought to bear in Malaysia. This image is of a Chinese tunnel-boring machine excavating the second longest portion of the 9.5km-long MRT tunnels in Kuala Lumpur.

“In the early days, mountains were chiselled through by hammer. Then came the pneumatic driller with the drill-and-blast method, as well as the cut-and-cover method,” he explains during a recent interview in China.

China’s huge ambitions for HSR means many mountains will have to be bored through, using TBMs or other methods.

But when it comes to its burgeoning cities, having tunnels is no longer considered a luxury – they are a necessity as land is a precious commodity. Going underground frees up surface land for other development, and in fact, having metro stations nearby increases the value of land, which could be recouped (if necessary) from higher property assessments and quit rents.

For example, a city the size of Shanghai has 12 metro lines, and the city won’t be stopping underground construction any time soon. Xian, the capital of the Shaanxi province, will have up to six metro lines by 2020 (two are already in operation).

“At any given time, there are around 700 TBMs running throughout China,” says Li in trying to give us a sense of the “underground movements” that are taking place in that country. Even at the peak of tunnelling in Kuala Lumpur for the Klang Valley mass rapid transit (MRT) project, only eight TBMs ran simultaneously.

China’s TBM-dug tunnels are record setters in themselves: the tunnel for Guangzhou’s Line 3 metro is a staggering 60km long; compare that with the tunnel for Line 1 of our MRT, which is “just” 9.5km.

What makes high speed travel possible, whether by road or by rail, is a good network of viaducts and tunnels, like this viaduct for road traffic that runs nearly parallel to the high-speed rail track at one point shortly out of Zhengzhou, in China's Henan province.
What makes high speed travel possible, whether by road or by rail, is a good network of viaducts and tunnels, like this viaduct for road traffic that runs nearly parallel to the highspeed rail track at one point shortly out of Zhengzhou, in China’s Henan province.

Tunnels for speed and navigation

If having the largest number of TBMs at work does not impress, then China’s latest proposal ought to: it is now seriously considering building the world’s longest undersea rail tunnel.

The current record holder when it comes to crossing the sea is Japan’s Seikan Tunnel, a 53.85km railway tunnel with a 23.3km-long portion under the seabed.

The track level is about 140m below the seabed and 240m below sea level of the Tsugaru Strait to connect Honshu with Hokkaido, making Seikan the deepest operational rail tunnel in the world as well.

The 50.45km Channel Tunnel between Britain and France has a longer undersea portion compared to Seikan.

If the Chinese Government approves the proposed Bohai Strait tunnel, then China will hold the record for the longest undersea tunnel at 122km – 2.5 times longer than the Channel Tunnel!

The proposed Bohai tunnel will run between the northern city of Dalian and Yantai on the east coast (see map above), slicing off nearly 1,300km off the current overland route between the two cities.

The tunnel will be used to run a HSR from the frigid north to the tropical island of Hainan in the south.

“Work could begin as early as 2015 or 2016,” Wang Mengshu of the Chinese academy of Engineering was reported as saying in the China Daily recently.

China's tremendous infrastructure development stretches in all directions, upwards, sideways, and now, downwards as it embarks on an ambitious programme to build metros and high-speed rail. This is a road traffic construction site at Zhengzhou, Henan.
China’s tremendous infrastructure development stretches in all directions, upwards, sideways, and now, downwards as it embarks on an ambitious programme to build metros and highspeed rail. This is a road traffic construction site at Zhengzhou, Henan.

Exporting expertise

All this means that China has had – and will continue to have – lots of practice in tunnelling and TBMs.

This has served to raise the confidence levels of Chinese TBM manufacturers, who now intend to enter the export market.

In fact, two such Chinese-made TBMs – specifically, made by the China Railway Tunnelling Equipment Corp Ltd (CRTE) – are now quietly working on our MRT project, excavating the second longest portion of tunnels (2.9km) that start from the Semantan portal all the way to the Pasar Seni station in KL.

Costing around RM25mil apiece, these TBMs are the first ever to be exported outside of China by CRTE, and serve as a reference project for other cities that are also considering Chinese-made TBMs.

“I have to say that no other machine, regardless of brand, could have bettered the performance of these (CRTE) machines in Kuala Lumpur,” says Gusz Klados, a Hungarian consultant who has been in the tunnelling business for more than 25 years and who is involved in Malaysia’s MRT project.

The most famous stretch of the Great Wall of China is the portion built between 220BCE–206BCE by Qin Shihuang. Little of that wall remains, and the majority of the existing wall is in fact from the Ming Dynasty – and is constantly “upgraded” or repaired to pander to tourists.

China may or may not be deeply concerned about its Great Wall, but what is definite is their focus is on creating great engineering marvels away from the sight of men, such as its network of tunnels and caverns for civilian, industrial and military use.

With its battalion of TBMs quietly working in the bowels of the earth, this is surely one form of Chinese “underground movement” that can only lead to wonderful outcomes.

Tags / Keywords: Science Technology, China, railway, transportation, high speed trains

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