Though the didn’t use the analogy, Sheng Guangzu, head of China’s railways ministry, has raised the spectre that the country’s fast-expanding but scandal-plagued high-speed rail network could be another Concorde, the pioneering supersonic Anglo-French passenger jet of the 1960s that proved too expensive to run in commercial service once the 1970s’ oil shocks quadrupled fuel prices.
Telling the People’s Daily that speed restrictions would be placed on the trains to make them most cost-efficient, Sheng said that trains running at 350 kph consume twice as much energy as those traveling at 200 kph. Slowing them up will save both on power costs and maintenance. Speeds are to be cut back from upwards of 350 kph to 200 kph-250 kph with a maximum of 300 kph.
Cost savings are to be passed on to passengers through lower ticket prices, Sheng said. The minister will hope that that will fill the many empty seats left vacant by travelers who complain that ticket prices on high-speed trains are exorbitant and who have voted with their backsides, so to speak. Sheng gave no details, but fares might come down to merely expensive.
The new five-year plan calls for the expansion of the high-speed rail network from the current 8,358 kilometers to more than 16,000 kilometers. Given, first, that the construction of lines able to accommodate trains traveling at 350 kph costs 100 million yuan ($15 million) per kilometer, much higher than for lines designed for 200 kph trains, according to Ren Shaoqiang, chief engineer of China Railway 20th Group Co., one of the companies building high-speed lines, and, second, that there is growing concern about the debt the rail system is taking on to finance its build out and about whether the whole system will turn out to be as much a commercial white elephant as Concorde was, we wonder whether Sheng’s remarks presage an overall slowing of the high-speed rail expansion.