China Transport Topics, published by the World Bank, are like buses. Nothing for a while, then two come along at once. This Bystander had barely digested No. 4, High-Speed Rail: The First Three Years, when No. 3 dropped in our in-box, Fast and Focused: Building China’s Railways by John Scales, Jitendra Sondhi and Paul Amos of the Bank’s Beijing office. This seeks to address a basic question about the world’s largest national railway build out for more than a century, how has China managed to build such an astonishing number of large and complex railway projects so much faster than any other country. A new rail line that might take 5-6 years from Beijing’s approval to system commissioning would typically take 7-15 years in almost any other country.
The authors’ answers to their core question boil down to three dominant factors:
- the concentration of responsibility, power and access to resources in one organization, the Ministry of Railways;
- strong technical capacity and processes; and
- a program effect that delivers economies of standardization and scale.
Transport and project management geeks will enjoy delving into the detail the authors provide around their first two factors, but we find the third, the program effect, more interesting. Building railways in China has become routine. The sheer scale of the various projects both individually and collectively has all involved confident that long-term development of China’s railways will continue. That, in turn, the authors say, has “led to a huge increase in the capacity of the industry, from technical institutes through to contractors, manufacturers, service suppliers and many others.”
How transferable China’s experience in railway building is to other countries is moot. Few countries follow the model of an omnipotent and omnipresent railways ministry (and one of the authors has suggested in another paper that its time might be passing). Few countries, also, have the resources and need to develop a rail network on the scale China committed to with the Mid and Long-Term Plan it laid out in 2004 (see map). Technical capacity can be acquired, though. It is also worth noting that the great railway expansions in Europe and North America in the 19th century delivered new lines at about the same pace as China is doing today.
The big unanswered question, as the authors note, is “whether the sheer speed of implementation has adversely affected the overall life-cycle costs and reliability of project infrastructure.” In the wake of both the Wenzhou high-speed train crash and the winding down of the post-2008 stimulus, the pace of investment in railways is being reined in while those questions are assessed. Yet from here on, the main determinant of the pace of railway development in China may not be structural, but old-fashioned finance. With what has been built so far struggling to break even and GDP growth set to slow in the long-term, will China still be able to afford to add to the boxcars of rail debt it already has?