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Development Engine
China's railways accelerate economic and social development countrywide
By Ge Lijun | VOL.11 October ·2019-09-30

A Fuxing train runs on Beijing-Tianjin high-speed railway (XINHUA)

The Beijing South Railway Station's cavernous departure hall is a hive of activity as thousands of passengers line up to catch trains for destinations across China. An overhead intercom issues constant instructions directing people to the correct boarding gates, where elegantly dressed railway officials check tickets.

Wang Jianye, a Beijing businessman, is one in the crowd queuing up on this autumn morning.

"I take the high-speed train from Beijing in the morning and arrive in Shanghai for business in the afternoon. In the evening, I catch another train back to Beijing," he told ChinAfrica. "Thanks to the high-speed railway (HSR), I can manage to make a round trip between the two cities quite conveniently in one day."

Wang often travels to Shanghai and says it would have been totally unimaginable to do this trip within the same time 10 years ago. "It used to take 15 hours to travel the 1,300 km between Beijing and Shanghai. Now, it only takes four and a half," he said.

Wang's experience is a microcosm of the benefits of modernization taking place in China's transportation systems. From the slow trains of the past to the high-speed trains like Fuxing, China's railway development continues to accelerate. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, at the end of 2018, the rail network reached 132,000 km, five times what it was in 1949 when the People's Republic of China (PRC) was founded. This includes 30,000 km of HSR, accounting for over 60 percent of the global HSR network.

Railways not only facilitate travel, but also help reduce poverty and stimulate the economic development in areas along the routes.

Benefits to economy

The Chinese HSR development has a history of only a decade, but it has already shown its value as a means to develop regional economies. Along the route between Beijing and Shanghai, the HSR has a top speed of 350 km per hour. Coming into service on June 30, 2011, it was the largest single investment project since the founding of the PRC. So far, the Beijing-Shanghai HSR has transported more than 1.3 billion passengers.

Beijing and Shanghai are centrally located in two major city clusters, Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei in the north and the Yangtze River Delta in the east. Previously, the ordinary railway connecting the two cities was one of the busiest routes in China. With the rapid economic development in China's east coastal area, the demand for passenger and goods transportation between the two cities exceeded the capacity of ordinary railway.

According to Shao Changhong, General Manager of the Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Railway Co. Ltd., before the operation of the HSR, the lack of transport capacity on the Beijing-Shanghai route seriously limited the economic development of the region. "That's why we need to develop HSR in China," said Shao. "Today, the Beijing-Shanghai HSR has become a model transport link in China, and will certainly become an example for the whole world."

In recent years, the fast development of HSR has promoted the creation of a "high-speed rail economic corridor" linking the two city clusters, which has greatly promoted regional economic and social development and facilitated public transportation.

The line crosses four provinces and three municipalities directly under the Central Government, benefiting 26.7 percent of the Chinese population and linking 14 cities of more than 1 million inhabitants along the route. "The many advantages of the HSR have brought economic renewal to several cities," said Zhao Fei, Director of the Management Department of the Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed ​​Railway Co. Ltd.

An example of HSR-led development is a village in Wuxi in east China's Jiangsu Province. "Thanks to the Wuxi East Railway Station, a new 125-square-km railway district - Xidong New City was built. It has attracted large investments in various industries," said Zhang Jinwei, Deputy Director of the Xidong New City Business District Management Committee. According to Zhang, this is a new development model combining industrial development with HSR transportation.

Data shows that since 2013, the proportion of real estate industry in the industrial structure of Xidong New City has fallen by more than 20 percent, while emerging industries such as industrial finance, technological innovation and tourism now account for more than 30 percent.

Due to the experience gained in the construction and operation of the Beijing-Shanghai HSR in recent years, more lines have been built and more cities are now connected by high-speed rail lines.

Ding Ningning, a researcher at the Development Research Center of the State Council, noted that the HSR promotes the formation of economic corridors along the railway lines, contributing to the expansion of division of labor between regions and to the integration of the internal market. In addition, more rural people are traveling to the cities, thus greatly increasing their employment opportunities.

In fact, the railways play an important role not only in the developed regions, but also in the disadvantaged areas where they help ease poverty.

Sky train coaches ready to roll off production line at the production base of China Railway Hi-Tech Industry Co.,Ltd. in Wuhan in July (CRHIC) 

Poverty alleviation

An example of railway development is the Qinghai-Tibet Railway inaugurated 13 years ago. This route has proved to be a powerful engine for the development of both regions.

In 1984, the Xining-Golmud section of the line in west Qinghai Province came into service. In 2006, the Golmud-Lhasa line was completed and opened to traffic. People of Lhasa, capital of Tibet Autonomous Region, have thus benefited from the advantages brought by the railway in the fight against poverty.

A small village near Lhasa is a case in point. "Before we got the railway, most villagers relied on farming. More than 800 farmers worked on less than 1,000 mu (66.67 hectares) of land, depending on the weather for food. If a family could save 5,000 yuan ($707) by the end of the year, it was considered wealthy," said Nyima Cering, former Director of Zhentong Logistics founded by the village.

In 2007, the village created a logistics company, taking advantage of the Lhasa West Freight Station. In less than three years, the village has turned from a farming-based village to a logistics-based village.

"Now, some villagers can earn more than 70,000 yuan ($9,900) a year," said Nyima Cering. The whole village is registered as the main shareholder in the logistics company. Last year, the company made a profit of 9.87 million yuan ($1.4 million), and paid more than 8.5 million yuan ($1.2 million) in dividends to local villagers. In 2015, all the families in the village were lifted out of poverty.

Things have changed not just in Tibet; the railway is also helpful for selling the products of impoverished regions. Xingxian County in Luliang, Shanxi Province, one of the 35 impoverished counties of the province in north China, has used the benefits of railways to sell regional products. On June 21, 2018, a railway line was commissioned, servicing more than 1 million inhabitants of the county. By using advertising campaigns on the trains, the county's unique agricultural products gained popularity nationwide. An increasing range of products such as millet are now being sold throughout the country, especially via e-commerce. The income of the villagers has almost doubled.

Since the 1990s, although the speed of the country's trains increased significantly, the price of train tickets in some impoverished areas has remained stable. These trains have become a force behind local people's campaigns of poverty reduction.

On October 17, 2018, to support China's national campaign of taking targeted measures for poverty alleviation, China State Railway Group Co., Ltd. (China Railway) brought 1,651 passenger trains into service that run through 592 key counties stricken by poverty.

Faster and more convenient

The most obvious advantage of the development of the railways is the increase in speed, reducing travel time between cities.

Apart from speed, the rail services are still improving, with features like facial recognition used at check-in points, full coverage of WiFi network, food ordering facilities onboard and improvement of other amenities. Today, to meet the diverse needs of passengers and improve their travel experience, AI technologies are being used in HSR services, like the virtual reality navigation system. All these improvements and modernization initiatives are attracting an increasing number of passengers.

The most direct contribution of the HSR is the rapid flow of passengers, especially for tourism. The Beijing-Shanghai HSR passes through one of most touristic regions in China, such as Qufu City in Shandong Province, which is the hometown of the famed ancient philosopher Confucius. After the opening of the HSR, the number of tourists to the city has increased exponentially. "The HSR has allowed tourists from cities along the line to travel to Qufu for the weekend," said Wang Yong, Deputy General Manager of Qufu Sankong Culture Co.

The Chinese are not the only ones to benefit from rapid railway development. In 2011 in Chongqing, the first China-Europe freight rail was launched as a result of increased trade between China and Europe.

With the progress of the Belt and Road Initiative, the Chinese experience in railway construction is being used internationally, particularly in Southeast Asia and Africa. Cooperation in this area brings real benefits to the local population.

In 70 years after the founding of the PRC, the Chinese railways have expanded beyond expectation. But what path will they take in the future? According to the Mid- and Long-Term Railway Network Development Plan jointly published in 2016 by the National Development and Reform Commission, the Ministry of Transport and the China Railway, by 2020, China's railway network will reach 150,000 km. These lines will cover more than 80 percent of major cities in China; by 2025, the railway network will reach 175,000 km, including 38,000 km of HSR.

(Comments to glj@chinafrica.cn)

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