Barrelling through: China's focus on high-speed rail is on display at Wuhan's station, located in Hubei province. One of the main stations on the Beijing-Guangzhou line, it has 11 platforms and 20 tracks. - Photo from China Railway Tunnelling Equipment
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.
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.