THE GIANT TRAFFIC-STRADDLING bus that caught this Bystander’s somewhat skeptical eye last year (see above) has gone the way of many an idea that was too innovative for its own good. Nowhere.
Technical and financial shortcomings seem to have done for it, according to press reports. Latest reports say the test track is being dismantled.
Last year, shortly after the (very) short test run of a prototype Transit Elevated Bus (TEB) in Qinhuangdao, the Beijing News reported that the main investment promotor for it was Huaying Kailai, an asset management company blacklisted in 2015 for conducting illegal finance activities. The Global Times said the firm, part of the Huaying Land Group, also ran a peer-to-peer financing scheme that promised high returns but risked running out of cash.
Claims of cooperation agreements between the bus’s maker, TEB Technology Development, and municipal governments appear to have been as spurious as purported orders from three countries in Latin America.
Update: Police have arrested 32 people in connection with the failure of the TEB, including the CEO of TEB and founder of Huaying Kailai Asset Management, Bai Zhiming, and 31 Huaying Kailai employees.
A GIANT TRAFFIC-STRADDLING bus (seen above) has caught the world’s attention, but it may be a different public transport technology that has the lasting impact.
The day after a prototype 2 metre-high Transit Elevated Bus made its inaugural test run along 300 metres of track in the northeastern city of Qinhuangdao in Hebei province, China’s first fully indigenous super capacitor (‘supercap’) tram rolled off the production line in Zhuzhou in Hunan province.
Both tick several boxes for China: road-congestion reduction, green transport that will lower carbon emissions and cutting-edge technology.
The electric-powered Transit Elevated Bus can carry 300 passengers, with, its manufacturers say, up to four of its 21 metres long by 7.5 metres wide units eventually being able to be strung together.
It runs along a track that can be laid on an existing road and sweeps over the traffic below (or at least over vehicles low enough to fit under) at speeds, it is said, that will eventually reach up to 60 kilometres per hour. It is touted as being like a subway system without the need to build the tunnels, thus reducing construction costs to a fifth of that of constructing a new subway line.
The super capacitor tram (seen above) does not have the futuristic look of the elevated bus. It looks like, well, a tram. Built by the electric motor division of the giant state-owned rolling stock manufacturer CRRC Corp., ZELC, the tram can carry up to 380 passengers and travel at 70 kilometres per hour. Its key feature is that its batteries can be fully powered in 30 seconds — i.e. while it is stopped to take on or put off passengers — so there is no need to install unsightly fixed lines above the track to provide the power.
The technology is at least a decade old and lets trams run for up to 5 kilometres on a single charge. Centenary-less supercap trams using technology from Germany’s Siemens are already running Guangzhou. Nanjing will be next. China’s cities have 5,000 kilometres of tram track with plans to have half as much again by 2020.
But why bother with tracks at all? Super capacitors can also be used to charge electric buses. ZELC has already developed a prototype in Ningbo, a bus that still travels on the road rather than over it.
The corruption trial of Liu Zhijun, the disgraced former railways minister who dipped his hand deep into the honeypot of China’s rapid expansion of its high-speed rail network, has been overshadowed by the Bo Xilai affair. Yet it is arguably a purer test of President Xi Jinping’s stated intention to crack down on corrupt officials as it doesn’t carry any of the political theatre of the Bo case.
Liu becomes the most senior official to be sentenced since Xi came to power, though the investigation and arrest of the 60-year old former railways minister predates that. A Beijing court convicted Liu of accepting 64.6 million yuan ($10.5 million) in bribes between 1986 and 2011, though this Bystander suspects that isn’t even the half of it. By some estimates 3% was skimmed off China’s 2 trillion yuan buildout of its high-speed rail system.
Liu’s sentence of death with a two-year reprieve is effectively a life sentence. Sufficient deterrent, not just for what Xi called the powerful “tigers” but also for the low-ranking “flies” that the anti-corruption drive is targeting? More cases of both kinds being brought to court would help, but institutional reform is needed to break the systemic grip of graft.
The Railways Ministry’s days have long been numbered. A year ago this Bystander noted a sentence in the to-do list of the National Development and Reform Commission:
We will study and formulate a plan for reforming the railroad system in accordance with the principle of separating government functions from enterprise management and state asset management.
This followed a World Bank working paper that outlined how the powerful and monstrously large ministry could be broken up. One of its key recommendations has been taken up: putting the oversight and planning for rail under a revamped transport ministry with multi-modal responsibilities for coordinating transport. Operations are going into a separate corporation, a likely prelude to sell-offs. (State media announcement of the ministry’s dismantling.)
China’s is the only significant rail network in the world where the railways ministry makes policy, builds and owns the infrastructure, operates the services and regulates the system. Beyond the obvious conflicts of interests, which have shown themselves most prominently in the scandal-plagued build-out of the high-speed rail network, China’s rail system is just so massive it is beyond the management of a single entity.
Taking on breaking up the railways ministry in isolation would have been a tough political ask for the new leadership. The ministry has long successfully defended the autonomy of its turf. But the combination of the scandals with the high-speed rail build-out and the desire for a less corrupt and more efficient government overall as necessary for the next stage of China’s economic development changed the political calculation. The “gold bowl that will never break’ has, at last, done so, and China’s transport system will be the better for it.
It also sends a signal that the new leadership is serious about taking on structural reform. That it has only managed to pick off some of the (relatively) easier targets–dismantling railways, consolidating coastal patrol agencies and promoting food and drug safety–but not made as much headway in areas such as financial markets and energy shows where some of the political constraints on it still lie.
Our man in Detroit tell us that General Motors intends to increase the number of dealerships it has across China to 4,200 from 3,800 by the end of this year. One in ten of those additional dealerships will be for Cadillac, taking the number of its dealerships to 200 from 160. Luxury marques are selling well.
Bob Socia, president of GM’s China operations, is aiming to get ahead of the growing demand for vehicles in what is now the world’s largest car market. Sales of cars and commercial vehicles are forecast to increase by 5%-8% this year, which could take the annual sales total beyond 21 million. Last year they rose 4.3% to 19.3 million vehicles even as economic growth slowed. That, though was a big improvement on 2011’s 2.5% growth in sales, hit hard by the removal of tax breaks for new-car purchases.
The biggest risk to the sales forecast for this year could be more legislation to thin traffic congestion and clean the air in big cities. Guangzhou, Beijing and Shanghai have all already done so. They may see their way to doing more on that front to, if anyone in Beijing can see anything right now. But other cities are expected to start following suit. GM’s dealership expansion could be to keep it ahead of that trend, too.
Train G502 on the inaugural run of the Beijing-Guangzhou line, the world’s longest high-speed rail line.
Passenger service has started on the world’s longest high-speed rail line, connecting Beijing and Guangzhou, a journey of 2,298 kilometers. The link cuts the travel time to eight hours from 21. It is a centerpiece in the build-out of the country’s at times scandal and safety-plagued high-speed rail network which is due to cover 16,000 kilometers by 2015. By then, the Beijing-Guangzhou line is due to be extended to Hong Kong.