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.