Challenges ahead for China’s high-speed rail plans

High-speed rail is an integral element of China’s “Belt and Road Initiative”. But turning proposals into reality has been difficult and authorities need to appreciate that what applies on the mainland does not necessarily work in another country

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 October, 2017, 1:08am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 October, 2017, 1:29am

Beijing’s ambition to bring high-speed rail travel to the world has been much-stated and vaunted. The idea is high on the agendas of officials during overseas trips and many nations are only too eager to embrace the technology. Yet for all the interest shown and deals signed, turning proposals into reality has been challenging. Authorities on both sides need to appreciate that what applies on the mainland does not necessarily work in another country.

High-speed rail is an integral element of China’s “Belt and Road Initiative”. Chinese companies will benefit through providing infrastructure, trains and equipment, and the links will ensure fast movement of people and freight. But China, despite being a model for the technology through having more high-speed track than all other countries combined, has stiff competition from nations including Japan, France, Germany and Spain. Being able to build lines at a far lower cost does not guarantee success, as the awarding by India of a contract to a Japanese firm recently showed.

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The firm won the deal because it was willing to transfer its technology, offered a more generous loan and could boast a 100 per cent safety record; in half a century of operation, there have been no deaths or injuries on Japanese high-speed trains. But even when agreements are signed, environmental impact studies, land acquisition problems and politics can get in the way. There have been numerous setbacks to construction of lines in Thailand from Bangkok to the province of Nakhon Ratchasima and Indonesia from Jakarta to Bandung in West Java, with respective projected completion dates of 2021 and 2019 unlikely to be met. That could mean cost overruns, renegotiation of terms and further delays. Deals in Mexico and Venezuela that seemed assured fell through.

China’s biggest overseas high-speed success story has been in Turkey with a line from Ankara to Istanbul and more tracks being built. But a high-profile project, such as that proposed between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, is needed for Beijing to showcase its skills to the world. High-speed rail is expensive, particularly for developing countries, but that is only part of the challenge for China.