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  • Sep 22, 2014
  • Updated: 4:54pm
CommentInsight & Opinion
LEADER

China's railway vision has its limits

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 May, 2014, 4:27am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 May, 2014, 4:27am

The word for China in Chinese means "middle kingdom", so it is understandable that the nation thinks of itself as being at the centre of the world. That, in part, explains ambitious proposals to build high-speed railway lines to Europe, North America and Southeast Asia. The trains would bring reliable and economical connectivity for cargo and passengers to and from China. As worthy as the ideas are, though, the grandiose scales, costs and political difficulties involved mean that we should not be overly optimistic that such projects will quickly - or even ever - become reality.

The Chinese Academy of Engineering has a vision of a global high-speed hook-up, built with the nation's cutting-edge technology and know-how. Its basis is sound enough - in a mere decade, China has built an astounding 10,000km of track and plans to have increased that five-fold by the end of the decade. While Western countries argue over costs and benefits, Beijing has constructed in record time more kilometres of track than any other nation. There have been setbacks like a fatal collision at Wenzhou in 2011, corruption scandals in the now dissolved railways ministry and the recent controversial delay to 2017 of completion of the Hong Kong leg of the line to Shenzhen, but the desire to push ahead has not diminished.

Cross-border high-speed lines are another matter, though; the distances, terrain extremes and number of countries involved make for funding, technical and operational challenges. Of the four projects put forward, only one, the Pan-Asian from Kunming to Singapore, is under construction. Two are being negotiated: a Eurasian line from London to Beijing via Paris, Berlin, Warsaw and Moscow; and a line from Urumqi in Xinjiang through Central Asia, Iran and Turkey and eventually to Germany. The most ambitious of all, though, is under discussion and would span 13,000km of track from China's northeast to Russia, through 200km of tunnels under the Bering Strait, to Alaska, Canada and then the continental US. Premier Li Keqiang also raised the prospect during his recent African trip of China building a network linking the continent's capitals.

The gains for the nation, Chinese companies and countries involved could be significant. High-speed railways can create jobs, speed up cargo and make travel more comfortable. But with the huge challenges to overcome in building lines across China's borders, visionaries should not get overly optimistic.

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Partha
While it is too early to guess the possible completion date of these mega intercontinental projects,it does provide employment to large number of Chinese and others in the related regions. Most importantly economic ties to a large extent dampen other potential conflicts that mar world peace. It is in the interest of international peace that intercontinental projects are given encouragement. Chinese initiative is laudable
wonderkov
The quality of journalism really seems to be degrading at the SCMP. Is there really enough population in central Asia, Eastern Russia, Alaska to justify building passenger rail, let alone high speed rail to Europe and North America? These are just fairy tale projects, and really not worth mentioning and commenting on by the newspaper.
grosvenor2007
SCMP does appear to be taken over by Falun Gong.
While I appreciate the author for providing info as to where the Chinese high-speed rail is heading, the intention of this piece, like a lot of other headline articles I've recently read on SCMP, is to degrade and mock China in an nonobjective manner.
Firstly, the first two sentences of this article are totally unnecessary, they did nothing but attempt to mislead audience into stereotyping Chinese with a slight negative connotation. Wouldn't the West be a hundred times more ambitious in that regard? Foreign colonies, heavy industries, consumer products, hospitality, F&B, financial, consultancy, accounting firms, real estate agencies, and IT/Internet brands spread all over the world. P&G, Unilever, Boeing, Airbus, Ambev, Coca Cola, PepsiCo, McDonald's, KFC, Mercedes, BMW, LVMH, Prada, EBay, Google, Microsoft, Apple, Oracle, SAP, Marriott, Inter-Continental Hotel Group, Accors, Citibank, Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank, Prudential, AIA, KPMG, PWC, CBRE, Jones Lang LaSalle, etc. And the author is picking on China?
Secondly, the audience are not idiots, everybody knows (apart from the idiots) that mega infrastructure projects or expansion plans (particularly when the projects are cross-border) involve high execution risk. If the author has nothing better to write, don't.
Thirdly, 1 out of 4 succession for a mega project this scale seems extremely remarkable, but the author chose to use the word "only"?
baysidedweller
True, nothing is easy. But the present day world is "flat" and there is no stopping in more economic connectivity between countries.
China, together with India, were the largest economies in the world from year 1 to the 1800s when the industrial revolution started in the west - ****www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/06/the-economic-history-of-the-last-2-000-years-in-1-little-graph/258676/, so using "middle kingdom" to describe China might not be inappropriate..
Elon Musk's Spacex almost went bankrupt and there were plenty of naysayers that he will not succeed. Now his next project could be replacing Russia when the space program will not be renewed beyond 2020 for delivering astronauts to the space station for NASA.
I agree that there are huge challenges lying ahead, but let's not write off the project yet when it just started. Maybe we should all be "cautiously optimistic".
How About
Nice. Turning to something more sinister, www.thereformedbroker.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Economic-Consequences-of-War.pdf, everything anyone needs to know about the whys behind the politiking we see. Let's build a HSR, let's hope...
536f8ae8-2cc8-46cb-991d-52b40a3209cb
That "little graph" by JP Morgan may not be as accurate as you think it is, especially when these guys are well known for their curious math talent. In a bimetallism world, a nation's wealth was measured quite differently than it is now. Depending on the amount of gold and silver stored as reserves excluding art and what not, which country do you think had a larger reserve (both state-owned and civilian-owned) in the early 20th century, the UK, the US, India or China?
baysidedweller
FYI, that "little graph" is by Angus Maddison from the University of Groningen. I have also seen it used in other newspapers and journals including the Financial Times, unless you think FT is also "slanted" and not worth reading.
As to your question about which country has the largest gold reserve, I would say USA, but is that relevant here?
How About
There have been detractors of China for decades and most still harbour doubts, rightly or wrongly on how things get done in China, against a set of metrics indoctrinated since birth and so ingrained that any deviation from which is either unacceptable or deviant. Let them be.
.
A good editorial SCMP!
.
impala
[The word for China in Chinese means "middle kingdom", so it is understandable that the nation thinks of itself as being at the centre of the world.]

No it is not. The word for Japan in Japanese means "origin of the sun," but I don't think we have a lot of understanding for those Japanese (if any) who think their nation is somehow special and supreme because of this.

It is the 21st century, you can't fall back on medieval, feudal world views anymore. Just like you can't base territorial (water) claims on 16th century maps.

High Speed Rail has its merits, and I can see the viability of connections to SEA. But to Europe? Or North America?! It's outright megalomania, with a sprinkle of concrete-lobby stardust.
r6b
First - passenger and freight ideally use separate types of tracks.
Freight is slow speed and needs high load bearing gapped track.
Passenger rail can use lighter all welded track, and most importantly, banked
at the curves to permit high speeds.
2nd - everyone in the shipping industry knows that rail is more expensive than sea.
From HKG to NYC, all water service is cheaper than combined sea/rail via west coast.
Sea/Rail transit time is only a week shorter, assuming no strikes at Long Beach, and/or winter rail delays in the Rockies.

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