China rides fast track to record
China has more people riding high-speed rail services than in France and is fast snapping at the heels of Japan's Shinkansen, the world's oldest and busiest high-speed rail service.
'China will soon be world No1 in high-speed-train ridership,' said David Shipley, managing director of CSRE, a British firm that markets Chinese trains in Europe.
In a recent report, the World Bank said: 'It is now three years since the first high-speed rail line in China opened. The total volume carried is already larger than the French TGV services and is rivalling the Japanese Shinkansen services. It will continue to grow rapidly as many lines under construction are completed, and as urban incomes and urban population in China continue to rise.'
Although there is no official Chinese data available on high-speed train passengers, China's second-place rank is likely due to the fact that it has the world's longest high-speed railway, with 11,000 kilometres as of the end of last year, says Guotai Junan Securities analyst Gary Wong.
In 2010, 290 million passengers rode trains travelling at 200 km/h or faster in China, the World Bank said. In comparison, the Shinkansen carried 342 million passengers in 2007 while France's version transported 114.5 million passengers in 2010, according to studies.
The growth of passengers on China's high-speed rail service is striking because it has been achieved in only three years. TGV began operations in 1981 and Shinkansen in 1964.
According to the World Bank report, the rapid growth of high-speed-rail usage can be deduced from the market share lost by conventional rail, bus and air travel.
Before the launch of the high-speed rail link between Changchun and Jilin in January last year, some 4 million passengers were using conventional trains between the northeastern cities every year.
Last year, the Changchun-Jilin high-speed rail line carried 10 million passengers, of which 2 million had switched from using buses. Bus services between these two cities has fallen from one bus every 10 minutes to two buses per day.
In 2009, 45 million passengers travelled on conventional trains between Wuhan and Guangzhou before the opening of high-speed rail services.
A year later, some 20 million passengers rode the Wuhan-Guangzhou high-speed railway, while 30 million took conventional trains. Some 10 million of them had switched from conventional train services and 1 million from air travel.
Since the introduction of high-speed rail services, monthly air passenger traffic on the 600-kilometre route between Changsha and Guangzhou has fallen to 30,000 from 90,000. Changsha is midway between Wuhan and Guangzhou.
However, the impact of the new links on air travel seemed to diminish beyond 1,000 kilometres, the World Bank said, with the 1,318-kilometre high-speed rail link between Beijing and Shanghai having little effect on air travel between these two cities.
Wong said despite the impressive passenger numbers, the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed trains were often 60 per cent empty.
The technology used in China still lags far behind that of France and Japan, according to Masterlink Securities analyst James Chung.
Former Minister of Railways Liu Zhijun, who pioneered the nation's high-speed railway, was arrested for alleged corruption in February last year. Last July, an accident involving two high-speed trains near Wenzhou in Zhejiang killed 40 and injured 200.
The cost incurred in building the system has left the Ministry of Railways with more than 2 trillion yuan (HK$2.45 trillion) of debt.
Most high-speed rail lines might need to reschedule repayment of their debt principal, given that only a handful of systems worldwide would be able to repay their debts, the World Bank said.
Globally, only one line in Japan was able to show a profit because high operating costs were holding back earnings at all companies, Masterlink's Chung said.