During the Great Recession, China chose to stimulate its economy through massive infrastructure projects – including building out a national high speed rail system. But after a few years, criticism began to mount amidst growing problems.
The Wenzhou disaster in 2011 showed China had serious problems in terms of managing the rapid growth of the system. That same year, American news outlets like the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal described the system as overburdened with debt, lacking riders, and facing financial ruin.
Many people stopped paying attention at that point. China’s HSR project was seen as unsafe and unsuccessful, what more was there to know? But as it turns out, the story did not end in 2011. Four years later, Chinese high speed rail is a stunning success and a model for the rest of the globe which will have to catch up or be left behind.
Over at the European Tribune, DoDo has taken a fresh look at China’s HSR system and finds it is doing quite well:
The history of high-speed rail is full of projects that, due to this or that planning deficiency, failed to meet initial expectations, only to become a roaring success a few years later. CRH went through an extreme version of this: while in 2011, some feared (and US anti-rail propagandists hoped) that China will be crushed financially by a trillion-dollar debt for lines that, rejected by the public, will never turn a profit, now the renminbis are flowing and China is the only country where there has been a pro-high-speed rail riot(!). It’s worth to look at how three specific lines performed.
The biggest success now is the most important and most expensive part of the network, the Beijing–Shanghai line. In 2014 (its third full year of operation), it carried more than 100 million passengers, and turned a profit a couple of years ahead of schedule. For scale, this is already two-thirds of the peak of the world’s busiest high-speed line (the Tōkaidō Shinkansen), and pretty close to the design capacity of 120 million passengers/year! Hence:
…over 250 trains are running on the tracks every day, and even this cannot meet the need of passengers,” said chairman Cai Qinghua. “We are about to build the second Beijing-Shanghai High-speed Railway if it continues developing this way.”
Before that, the newly planned lines from Beijing to Hefei would provide relief.
The second case study is the Wuhan–Guangzhou line, which was one of the first to open. It was a big gamble as the first near-1,000 km line in the world, it provided for negative news with unmet initial ridership expectations, and its losses were of real significance due to its sheer size. However, it reached 50 million passengers in 2013, or 2½ times its initial year ridership, or about break-even level. A big factor was the opening of connecting lines (in particular its extensions to Beijing and Shenzhen), another the opening of urban rail connections to several of its stations.
It’s become quite clear now that China’s ambitious HSR project is paying off quite well. The finances work out, and ridership is soaring. This year will be the peak construction of the system, with a dozen more routes likely to be completed by the end of 2015. DoDo expects the entire system to be pretty much done by the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, which would be less than 15 years from start to finish.
DoDo also points out that HSR construction has helped to spur construction of more metro rail lines in China’s fast-growing cities, which would be something Californians would certainly welcome.
What happened between 2011 and 2015? Nothing, really. The problem was that in 2011 the system was too young to judge whether it was a success or a failure. In 2009, DoDo himself explained that there is a five-year curve in any new HSR line, that there is a ramp-up period that builders and governments just have to ride out rather than panic and make bad decisions that would compromise the effectiveness of the system. Basically, ridership on a new HSR line will take about 5 years to reach its full potential, and governments have to be willing to let that process unfold naturally, rather than panicking in the face of bad press in the second or third year.
DoDo developed that basic analysis after looking at the expansion of Spain’s AVE network in the 2000s and the early years of the French TGV in the 1980s, but the story of China HSR proves the concept quite well.
So now that China is entering the North American HSR picture with its deal to help build XpressWest to Las Vegas, it’s worth keeping in mind that China actually does know how to build a successful HSR system.