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China Expanding High-Speed Rail System To Neighboring Countries; Could Roll Out ‘World’s Fastest Train’

China has the world’s largest network of high-speed railways and is expanding the same to neighboring countries as well. And if things go as planned, the communist nation could soon roll out what it calls the world’s fastest trains.

Bullet trains or the high-speed rail (HSR) system are an elite addition to the existing train services. This railway system integrates several elements such as infrastructure for new lines designed for speeds of 250 km/h and above and an upgrade of the existing lines for speeds of up to 200 or 220 km/h along with interconnecting lines that join high-speed sections.

The availability of this infrastructure broadly defines the speed a train must attain to qualify within an HSR system.

China high-speed train
A high-speed train at Shanghai Hongqiao railway station. (Wikimedia Commons)

HSR systems also have a distinct rolling stock that is designed specifically for train sets. Other technologies involved in these systems consist of special telecommunication facilities, signaling tools, operating conditions, and equipment, among others.

An important benefit of quick transportation facilitated by high-speed trains is seen in terms of achieving regional integration. The present trends in the HSR network show a very sharp surge in the length of the network in Asia. Due to their benefits, the development and implementation of high-speed railway lines are being studied worldwide.

China’s Extensive HSR Network

China has a network of at least 37,900 kilometers of HSR lines spread across the country. It has been expanding the network in mega-city clusters since 2008. In fact, as of 2020, 75% of all Chinese cities with a population equivalent to, or over 500,000, had a high-speed rail link.

Half of the progress on this massive network was made in the past five years. Reports state that the network is expected to double in length — going up to 70,000 kilometers- by 2035.

Several of these lines have trains running at maximum speeds of 350 km/h. Not only have these superfast trains transformed intercity travel, but they have also broken the dominance of airlines on some of the busiest routes in the nation.

China is aiming to make high-speed rail the preferred mode of transportation choice for domestic long-distance travel. With the spread of the HSR, comes an opportunity for China’s ruling Communist Party and its leader Xi Jinping, to use it for social cohesion, expanding political influence, and the consolidation of faraway regions with varied cultures into the mainstream.

Rapid Construction

China was originally dependent on high-speed technology imported from Japan and Europe to establish its HSR network. Global rail engineering corporations like Bombardier, Alstom, and Mitsubishi co-operated in this effort- thanks in no small measure to the potential size of the new market.

This equation changed over the last decade when China’s domestic companies developed into world leaders in the making of high-speed train technology and engineering. The primary reason for this was the fast-paced expansion of their home network.

While the huge size of the country and its wide variations in terms of topography and climate posed multiple challenges for China’s railway engineers, centralized state funding and planning, allowed the nation to avoid the endless legal wrangles and set the fast pace of developing the network.

A good illustrative example is the Zhengzhou East-Wangzhou line. The 815-kilometer rail line was built in less than five years, at a cost of $13.5 billion.

The Bullet train service between Lhasa and Nyingchi. (Image: People’s Daily)

Towards late-2020, China National Railways was operating over 9,600 high-speed trains on a daily basis. This included the world’s only high-speed overnight sleeper services on certain chosen longer-distance routes.

More than 100 tunnels, each over 10 kilometers long, were also built as part of this network. Several long-span bridges were built over natural obstacles like the Yangtze River.

In July this year, China unveiled a high-speed train service connecting Tibet’s capital Lhasa and Nyingchi near the disputed border with India, opposite the latter’s Arunachal Pradesh state.

There were several innovations that were incorporated to suit the unique demands of China’s varied terrain and climate. Chinese companies introduced autonomous (driverless) train operations and advanced signaling and control technology.

Pros And Cons For China

The HSR projects are supported by investment funds and loans. They are strengthening China’s position as the regional superpower in Asia, while also pulling in developing nations by proposing to build such rail lines there. These nations will probably rely on the rail networks built by China, further increasing their economic dependence on Beijing.

Some studies have speculated that the new transport infrastructure could stimulate real estate business and attract foreign direct investment to central and western China. They can also increase the local government’s tax revenues. Researchers studying the economic impact of HSR found that in eastern China, one such rail station boosted the economy by nearly 9 percent within a range of  4km.

In central China, this increase was found to be 3.6 percent, while in the northeast it was 4.4 percent.

However, researchers also noted that on average, each high-speed rail station in western China corresponded to a more than 1.5 percent fall in the intensity of local economic activity there.

The Shanghai Maglev Train can reach a top speed of 431 km/h. (Wikimedia Commons)

A study published in the journal China Industrial Economics in September showed that the construction of HSR lines has accelerated a “brain drain” from western regions as people from there moved to the eastern region.

Whatever the balance between the benefits and disadvantages of this system, China is keen on building even faster trains and extending the network across its national borders.

China Moving Towards ‘The Fastest’ Trains?

Around late-2020, China’s state-owned rail engineering giant CRRC previewed the prototype of a very high-speed electric train for international routes. This train was capable of operating at speeds reaching up to 400 km/h. This prototype is claimed to have the capability to operate in temperatures ranging between -50C to +50C.

It also features gauge-changing wheelsets that enable it to run directly into Russia, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan — countries that use a wider track gauge than China’s. It is speculated that this ability to change gauges has the potential to allow direct trains to reach India and Pakistan via Myanmar and Bangladesh.

Expansion into neighboring countries is already underway with the Laos-China HSR having been officially launched this month. The Sino-Thai HSR project is also advancing forward.

Potential railway routes that cross the Himalayas into Nepal, or extend into Russia and the former Soviet states located in Central Asia will provide improved trade routes for Chinese exports. They will also be able to deliver huge development contracts for the country’s rail and civil engineering firms.

The speed of 400 km/h is not the extent of the speed China wants to reach, though. Reports from the state media show that the nation had unveiled a maglev train capable of a top speed of 600 km/h in July. Such a speed means that this indigenously-developed train that uses electromagnetic force to levitate above the tracks, is the fastest ground vehicle globally.

While the country is yet to develop inter-city or inter-province maglev lines, research into such transportation lines has already begun in some cities- including Shanghai and Chengdu.

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