BEIJING, July 27, 2010 – A new report commissioned by the World Bank points out that China’s High Speed Passenger Rail System, currently under construction, is perhaps the biggest single planned program of passenger rail investment there has ever been in one country.
The report High-Speed Rail: The Fast Track to Economic Development? authored by the World Bank-engaged consultants Paul Amos, Dick Bullock and Jitendra Sondhi indicates that by 2012, China will have built no less than 42 passenger lines with maximum train speeds in excess of 250km/h, and will offer high-speed rail travel on 13,000 kilometers of route. China will then have more high-speed railway than the rest of the world put together. The authors describe how many years of meticulous preparation and planning for high speed train operations underpin the delivery of the program including the work of China’s railway managers, engineers, supply industries and technical institutes.
The report also puts China’s experience in the context of the global experience of high-speed rail development over the last 50 years since the modern era of fast train travel opened with the construction of Japan’s first Shinkansen, or ‘bullet train’, between Tokyo and Osaka. That project was itself partly financed by the World Bank. Reviewing the subsequent experiences in several other countries that have invested in high-speed rail, the report identifies the range of economic and demographic conditions that may make investment in high-speed rail worthwhile. The authors conclude that the combination of supportive features that exists on the eastern plains of China such as the very high population density, rapidly growing disposable incomes, and prevalence of many large cities in reasonable proximity to one another (creating not just one city-pair but a string of such pairs) are not found in most developing countries. Nor could all countries assemble the focused, collective capacity-building effort and the economies of scale that result, when a government can commit the country, politically and economically, to a decades-long program over a vast land area.
“Despite the economic and environmental benefits that a successful high-speed rail service can deliver, few high-speed rail projects internationally will be able to fully recover their capital costs except in the densest long-distance transport corridors,” warns Paul Amos, one of the authors of the report. “Most governments contemplating the benefits of a new high-speed railway should also contemplate the near-certainty of budget support for the debt.”
“Clearly, each high-speed line must be properly evaluated and assessed on its merits. But our work indicates that high speed rail not only brings immediate benefits to passengers, but also frees up capacity on existing lines to carry more freight, and saves resources and improves the environment through transfer of traffic from more costly and more environmentally damaging modes of transport,” said John Scales, the World Bank’s Transport Coordinator in China. He noted that the Bank is supporting a number of the individual projects in China’s railway program that will create step-changes in the transport opportunities for more remote inland cities like Guiyang and Nanning.