China prepared to share high-speed rail expertise

A 301-km high-speed (HS) railway connecting Shanghai and Nanjing in east central China began its inaugural run on July 1. With a maximum speed of 350 kilometers per hour (km/h), the CRH train shortens the express trip time between the two terminuses from a little more than two hours to 73 minutes.

China's development of HS rails was late but fast. Its first HS railway, the 120-km Beijing-Tianjin inter-city line, was opened for service on August 1, 2008. By the end of 2009, total HS operating length had reached 6,552 kilometers. The Ministry of Railways (MOR) says an additional 10,000 kilometers of HS rails are now under construction.

Officials believe the HS railway is going to alter the picture of world transportation. Chinese experts say the country plans to make its contribution towards this global trend.

China has previously said it is prepared to share its expertise in HS railways with the world. "We are committed to an 'out-going' strategy. It means not only the export of products and service, but also technology and brand," said Chen Juemin, director-general of MOR Department for International Cooperation, during a recent interview.

China's achievements in HS rail have impressed the world. Since 2003 it has signed about 30 agreements or memorandums of understanding with other countries on cooperation in railway development. Chinese rail firms were invited to tender or participate in projects abroad. Last year, MOR received over 100 groups of foreign political leaders and government representatives.

"My job requires going abroad from time to time. Now I just don't have the time," said Chen Juemin.

World leading technology

Experts say China's HS technology is both comprehensive and mature. Although the current technology does not apply to all conditions, China has laid long, seamless rails for HS trains on a great variety of terrain -- on or above lowland plains and atop plateaus, above and under water, and inside tunnels deep in mountains.

HS trains running on the 1,068-km Wuhan-Guangzhou railway pass each other safely at a speed of 350 km/h in the tunnel. And the high-speed movement has little affect upon the surface of water contained in a cup sitting on the small table of a train carriage.

The maximum speed of the CRH3 train is 394.2 km/h and it normally runs at 350 km/h. Both figures were obtained from test runs of trains in actual use, instead of vehicles specially built for experimental purposes, as some countries did. "China's HS trains are safe and comfortable," said He Huawu, MOR chief engineer.

The advancement of China's HS technology was marvelous and indisputable, Chen Juemin said, "It's an advantage of the late-comer. We are late, but we achieve big."

The Chinese technology combined original independent innovation and innovation in partnership with other countries or through technological transfers. MOR statistics show that between 2003 and 2009 China's railway sector submitted 946 items for patent protection. The Chinese government has been very careful about the issue of intellectual property rights in the rail sector. "So far, there is no dispute on that," Chen Juemin said.

Rapid development at home

According to MOR Vice Minister Wang Zhiguo, by the end of 2012 China will have in place 13,000 kilometers of HS rail with a total railway mileage of 110,000 kilometers. A HS rail network featuring four horizontal and four vertical lines will take shape by then.

Further, construction funding is not a big concern. The HS rail projects enjoy strong government support. Public budget money, corporate financing and private investments combine to cover the huge initial expenses. Official statistics show the debt rate of the entire railway sector was 52% in 2009, which the MOR is confident it can manage .

Opened in December last year, the Wuhan-Guangzhou HS railway had 33 train services scheduled daily, with an average occupancy rate of 84%. The busiest day recorded 82,200 passengers. The new train was welcomed for being fast, safe and comfortable.

The operation of the Beijing-Tianjin inter-city railway, the first HS rail in China that allows a normal running speed of 250 km/h, showed its number of passengers fell below expectations. The authority said that was because connections with other railways and subways in the two connecting cities had yet to be completed.

The newly launched Shanghai-Nanjing HS railway is part of the 1,320-km Beijing-Shanghai HS railway, which is scheduled to begin operating in late 2011. Begun more than a decade ago, the project was the first HS rail plan in China, introducing experts and common citizens alike on the concept of HS trains, while triggering a long-standing debate on whether it was wise to construct a railway at huge cost and what sort of technology should be adopted. Although the project has lost the hope of being the first completed, it continues to enjoy the highest expectations, partly because it links the two most important Chinese cities. MOR sources say construction of the Beijing-Shanghai HS railway is continuing smoothly.

The expansion of HS railways is likely to reshuffle the game of mass transportation. Affected by the Zhengzhou-Xi'an HS trains, air flights between the two cities have been driven out of the market. However, the pressure of railway on other means of transport may not necessarily be negative. Thanks to the tourist boom in Tibet facilitated by the Qinghai-Tibet railway, passenger flights to the region reported a surge of 38%.

Competition may get tough, but each means of transport has its own room for survival. Road transport is best for door-to-door short distance service, whereas air travel is still the fastest, especially for long distances. Being fast, comfortable and all-weather operating, HS trains may be the best choice for traveling within a distance of 1,000 kilometers.

"The various modes of transport all have great market demands. All need to develop fast and further," said He Huawu.

Sharing with the world

China's rapid development of HS railway is having a far-reaching impact on transport, economy, as well as on social life.The world, in watching, also seems to have realized its significance.

The China-US Joint Statement published during Obama's visit to China in November 2009 stated "The two sides welcomed cooperation by public and private bodies on the development of high speed railway infrastructure." MOR signed a memorandum of understanding with GE on strategic cooperation. Another memorandum was signed with the Californian High-Speed Rail Authority.

China's MOR also signed an MOU with the transport department of Russia in October 2009 during the 14th prime ministers' meeting. Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Poland, the United Arab Emirates, India and many other countries have contacted China for similar reasons. "China is prepared to share its mature HS railway technology with other countries on the principle of mutual benefits and win-win cooperation," MOR chief engineer He Huawu said.

While China's domestic market was attractive to foreign firms, Chinese companies are eager to travel abroad. As chief coordinator, MOR is implementing a wide-spectrum out-going strategy. The ministry has set up a handful of coordinating groups, each specialized in affairs of a specific country or region. And diverse resources are organized into formidable collective bidding groups.

The impressive domestic construction readily demonstrated China's capability in HS rail development. Together with reasonable prices and preferential government policies in bank credits, insurance and taxes, Chinese bidders have proven fairly competitive on the international market.

"Government support is understandable. Other countries do the same. The policies are in conformity with WTO rules," Chen Juemin said.

The export of China's railway products is not limited to the HS system. China has rich experience in conventional railways and the upgrading of conventional lines. In the past two decades the country also witnessed a surge in constructing city metro and light rails with local government funds.

This export is all encompassing, from planning and designing, to construction of railways, to delivery of trains and the operational and maintenance systems. "With the out-going strategy, we aim to promote the China brand and standards on the international market," Chen Juemin said.

China also operates the world's first and only maglev railway in East China's coastal city Shanghai, where the world's largest expo is going on. The 30-km line adopted German technology, with a maximum speed approaching 430 km/h.

China is involved in on-going international projects such as the 468-km Tinaco-Anaco railway in Venezuela, the Ankara-Istanbul railway in Turkey, and the 18-km Mecca light rail in Saudi Arabia.

If the development of China's HS railway was unexpectedly fast, the MOR seemed caught by surprise with the out-going strategy. "We're late in preparing for overseas projects. Some projects we had not even heard of until we were invited to tender," Chen Juemin said, "It shows that foreign owners have confidence in our ability. But we need to do a better job in the future."

Officials at MOR were said to be going all out in the "out-going" move. One bottleneck was a shortage of talent, especially people competent in foreign languages. "There are too many unread foreign documents. And we need people who understand and are able to communicate with people of different cultures, " Chen noted.