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China wants to boost transport of bulk cargo by railway to cut air pollution. Photo: Xinhua

China’s plan to boost railway freight falls behind target, knocking air pollution battle off track

  • China’s plan to shift the transport of bulk cargo from dirty, diesel-burning trucks to cleaner electric-powered railcars is falling behind target
  • The country’s state-run railway system is plagued by inefficiency, a lack of coordination and a mismatch in market needs, an expert says
China’s ambitious three-year plan to boost railway cargo volume and reduce long-distance trucking – a key plank in Beijing’s campaign to cut air pollution – is falling behind schedule, according to official data and media reports.

Under the plan, which was introduced by the central government in 2018, China’s “transport structure” was to be improved by shifting the movement of bulk cargo such as minerals from dirty, diesel-burning trucks to cleaner electric-powered railcars.

By 2020, at least 80 per cent of industrial and mining firms with an annual bulk cargo volume above 1.5 million tonnes – an amount that would cover most mining sites and smelters – was to be connected to the railway system.

In addition, all major ports were told to move transport of iron ore and coal from trucks to ships and railways.


Life on Earth is breathing cleaner air as the deadly coronavirus spreads around the world

Life on Earth is breathing cleaner air as the deadly coronavirus spreads around the world

However, official data shows the plan is lagging far behind schedule and there is little prospect that targets will be met by year-end.

For example, the Port of Tianjin, one of the major harbours in northern China, said railway transport accounted for only 64 per cent of iron ore moved from the entrepot in the first half of this year, though this was an improvement from 50 per cent for all of 2019.

The lack of railway cargo is forcing some key freight lines to run below designated capacity, including the Haoji Railway, which started operations last year as the world’s longest special coal transport railway, connecting the coal hub of Inner Mongolia with central and southern China.

The 1,800km rail line has a transport capacity of 200 million tonnes per year, and the state-owned China Railway Group, which operates the national railway system, said it hoped it could transport 60 million tonnes of coal this year.


China’s new railway makes circular network with Qinghai, Tibet and Xinjiang lines

China’s new railway makes circular network with Qinghai, Tibet and Xinjiang lines

But in the first six months, the rail line carried just 9.7 million tonnes of coal.

Zhao Jian, a professor in the economics department at Beijing Jiaotong University, said China Railway Group’s monopoly over the railway system has resulted in inefficiency and a mismatch in market demands, according to a report in China Business, a local newspaper.

The country’s vast railway freight system is managed under 18 different regional bureaus and there is little incentive to improve coordination of services, he said. And despite the extensive network, the average freight mileage was just 700km, Zhao was quoted as saying.

The Chinese government has encouraged industrial and mining enterprises to build their own railways to connect to the state system, but many are dragging their feet on the investment.

In 2019, the National Development and Reform Commission, the country’s economic planning agency, approved 127 mini railway projects – with lengths ranging from 1km to 64km – to solve the so-called last mile problem in the freight system, but it has not provided any state support.

China’s total railway freight increased 3.6 per cent year-on-year in the first half to 1.7 trillion tonnes, or about 47 per cent of the full-year target of 3.65 billion tonnes, according to China Railway Group.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Ambitious rail cargo plan falling behind schedule