Rail network 'going too fast'

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 July, 2011, 12:00am

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The fatal train collision in Wenzhou on Saturday showed how Beijing had ignored the hazards of its fast-paced development of infrastructure in recent years, mainland scholars said.

Saturday's incident was only the latest of several railway accidents in the past four years, three of which resulted in double-digit death tolls. The newly opened, landmark Shanghai-Beijing line has suffered repeated power failures that have delayed hundreds of journeys.

The massive spending by the Ministry of Railways, which was 1.8 trillion yuan (HK$2.18 trillion) in debt at the end of last year, has also raised concern. Its plan to build 16,000 kilometres of high-speed railways across the country by 2020 will involve a further investment of at least 2 trillion yuan, one academic estimated.

'The yearly interest for the ministry's debt will soon exceed 100 billion yuan, and its only source to repay it is the 50-billion-yuan railway construction fund [from the state treasury],' said Zhao Jian from Beijing Jiaotong University.

'Without support from the central government's 4-trillion-yuan stimulus package, and without a new way to finance the increasing interest, the ministry's cash flow will rupture,' he warned.

China rolled out the stimulus package in 2008 to spur domestic consumption to counter the slump in demand for Chinese exports during the global economic recession. Much of the stimulus has been spent on infrastructure projects, including high-speed railways.

Mao Shoulong , a specialist in public policy at Renmin University, said the rush to develop the rail sector had led to quality problems.

It was time to adjust the pace but this would be no easy job, he said. 'If you slow down the development of high-speed railways, for local governments, their economy will suffer a heavy blow.'

At a national rail conference in January, the then rail minister Liu Zhijun said the high-speed rail network would cover almost 13,000 kilometres this year. According to China's mid- to long-term plan which was drafted in 2004 and amended in 2008, the rail network would total more than 120,000 kilometres by 2020. Of this, 16,000 kilometres would be high-speed railways carrying trains travelling at more than 200 kilometres an hour.

But, judging from ticket revenue so far, the ministry is likely sinking deeper into debt, Zhao said.

'The Zhengzhou to Xian high-speed line has only 11 pairs of trains a day and carries less than 10 million people a year. But it's capable of having 160 pairs a day,' he said. 'This is like building a 160-storey luxury hotel where only 11 storeys are used and the occupancy rate of those floors is below 50 per cent. A debt crisis has already emerged.'

Why, then, is the government willing to take the risk?

Zhang Ming, a political scientist at Renmin University, said it's been a persistent belief that it should hold political power through rapid economic development.

'There has been no political reform, and a lot of problems have accumulated,' he said. 'The government has to rely on economic growth to cover up these problems, but this only leads to more serious problems, like the recent train collision.'

Though the government has said it will attach less importance to economic growth in the next five years, the obsession with grandiose achievements will not immediately fade away, said Song Guohua of the Beijing Jiaotong University.

'It's time to cool off and think about healthy development in the long term,' he said.