'IT'S goodbye to the bicycle,' Chen Chunnian says as he spreads out a map of Tianjin, criss-crossed by the lines showing the new underground system he hopes to build. In addition to three, new ring roads, China's third largest industrial city is planning five subway lines and a line to its port and special development area. Mr Chen, vice-director of the Tianjin Municipal Engineering Bureau, admitted he had no idea how many billions of dollars it would cost to turn his master plan into reality. 'It could take 30 years to build so who knows [how much]?' he said. At the end of this month Tianjin will receive the final bids from three Australian consortiums vying to extend the existing line from seven kilometres to 18 km. Over the next five years, Tianjin hopes to renovate its existing line and build another eight stations. This alone will cost 4.16 billion yuan (about HK$3.82 billion), including a US$150 million soft loan from the Australian Government. The cost of constructing the whole system, including an elevated light rail system to loop the outskirts of the city, will be gigantic. Tianjin officials said irrespective of the cost, they had no choice if the city was to continue functioning. It takes not much more than an hour to drive along the new motorway from Beijing, but from the motorway exit it can take another hour to get into the city, which is gridlocked most of the day. Tianjin has about 570,000 motor vehicles and 200,000 motorcycles and numbers are increasing 10 to 15 per cent a year in line with industrial growth. Most of the city's nine million inhabitants now travel by bicycle. Officials reckon there is one bicycle for every citizen and they clog up roads which the Communist Party wants to liberate for cars. Although China's love affair with the pollution-free bicycle used to excite the admiration of Western visitors, China's major cities are determined to relegate them to the dustbin of history. 'Everyone now wants a modern subway, it's a craze sweeping China,' a Western diplomat said. Shanghai, Guangzhou, Beijing, Qingdao, Shezhen, Changchun, Chengdu and Nanjing are among those building or planning to have an underground and/or light rail transport system. Eight smaller cities have announced their intention to follow suit. Mr Chen said Tianjin wanted to buy one off the shelf in a BOT (build-operate-transfer) plan. Instead of waiting for China to acquire the technology and to develop a domestic manufacturing base, China's premier cities are rushing to import rail systems lock, stock and barrel. The first underground train was built in London 150 years ago. Since then, nothing on this scale and at this speed has ever happened. While this is a bonanza for foreign countries which win a slice of the cake, for China it is a penalty for the wasted years under Chairman Mao. Tianjin was once one of the most modern cities in East Asia with a good tramway and trolley bus system. This was dismantled in the early 1960s while the population of the foreign treaty port doubled and then tripled. Instead of building new roads or a subway, Mao ordered Tianjin to build a deep tunnel to serve as an air raid shelter in case of a Soviet nuclear attack. Work started in 1970 but was never finished. After 1979, Tianjin, like Beijing, turned the useless tunnel into its first underground railway. The line, which used domestic technology, is now having to be renovated. Mr Chen said its trains were too small, platforms too short, and the rest of its equipment fell short of international standards. Shanghai, which was never allowed to build an underground, has been the first to open a modern line. Work began at breakneck speed in 1990 and, earlier this month, a 16 km line opened. China's biggest industrial city plans to build six underground lines and six more light rail lines. Shanghai has shown how fast this can be done if there is the political will. The question is who is going to pay for it? Shanghai's first 16 km line cost $680 million or $81 million per kilometre, and 40 per cent came from soft loans from Germany, France and the United States. Guangzhou has raised $1 billion in foreign loans for its 18.45 km line. A Japanese company, Aoki, won the contract but will import equipment from the US, Japan, Britain, France and Italy. Compared to these two cities, Tianjin has only managed to raise $150 million from Australia, about a quarter of the cost. However, officials claimed the construction cost per kilometre was half that of Shanghai's. Yet somehow it has to find the rest of the money for the first line, and then for the others. The central government has made it clear it is unwilling or unable to bankroll the project.