Tag Archives: Transport

Building China’s Railways: That Was Quick

Photo taken on Aug. 1, 2008 shows a bullet train runs through the Yangcun Bridge of the Beijing-Tianjin Express Line in north China's Tianjin Municipality.  (Xinhua/Yuan Ruilun)

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?

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Fixing Beijing’s Traffic: Tough Medicine Time

No city has built its way out of traffic congestion. New roads mostly attract more traffic. Beijing, caught between the double squeeze of rising household incomes and falling car prices, is no exception. Municipal authorities are now proposing reducing the number of official journeys by car, imposing a congestion fee on drivers, raising parking charges and introducing odd-even license plate restrictions in the city center. Car owners, predictably, approve of the first proposal but not the other three, Xinhua reports.

Liu Zhi, who leads the infrastructure team at the World Bank’s Beijing Office, argues that far more intensive demand side measures are needed, from non-pricing controls on vehicle ownership and use to pricing controls such as fuel taxes and congestion pricing. Indeed, Liu points out, the Bank suggested more than a decade and a half ago (when there were fewer than 1 million cars in Beijing)  that the municipal government introduce such measures to choke off congestion before it started, “but a city heading toward hyper congestion is often like a patient not wanting to take the tough dose of medicine until the illness becomes too serious”. There are now 4.7 million cars in the city, with 760,000 added this year, according to the Beijing Traffic Management Bureau.

Liu points to Seoul, which reached the point of congestion in the mid-1990s that Beijing now faces. It has taken it 15 year of increasingly tough and not always popular demand-side measures from gas taxes to public-transport investment such as subways, bus lanes and cycle ways to ease, if not eliminate the congestion in the South Korean capital.

It is time to administer the tough dose of medicine in Beijing, Liu says.

The non-pricing and pricing controls of vehicle ownership and use in congested cities are just the means to correct the long-standing policy distortions, and create the right incentive for car users to shift to other modes of transport. It is time for Beijing’s car-owning group to understand this. It is time for Beijing to adopt demand-side controls.

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New Rail Line To Xinjiang To Be Built

A concrete infrastructure spending proposal: 120 billion yuan to build a 1,900 kilometer passenger rail line to from Gansu to Xinjiang, Xinhua repots. The new line will run parallel to the existing Lanxin railway, which will be turned over to freight exclusively, easing a bottleneck to the transport of Xinjiang’s oil, coal and cotton to the rest of China.

At present the Lanxin railway is the only line connecting the far west with the rest of China, running from Lanzhou to Urumqi and then on to the Kazakhstan border, following in part the path of the old Silk Road. Work on the new line will start next year, thought there is no indication of how long it will take. Xinhua also says that 100 billion yuan will be spent on improving roads in the region over the next five years.

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