World Bank Paper: Cautiously Optimistic about High-Speed Rail in China

April 6, 2012

BEIJING, April 6, 2012 – High-speed rail services have now been operating in China for three years. How are they performing? What has happened to the conventional services they parallel? What has been the impact on airlines? A new World Bank paper reviews the performance in terms of traffic of the high-speed rail program in China, after three years of operations.

The paper reviews some of the early evidence of the high-speed rail impact on service and fares, on conventional trains and air transport, as well as initial levels of ridership.  Ultimately, the appropriate time frame to deliver final judgment on the program will be measured in decades, not years. However, evidence accumulated to date provides some interesting insights. The paper titled “High-Speed Rail – The First Three Years, Taking the Pulse of China’s Emerging Program” prepared by Richard Bullock and Ying Jin, together with World Bank transport specialist Andrew Salzberg, is based upon thirty year experience of the World Bank in China, and thorough understanding by the authors of railways in China today.

In regard to more than the total volume of traffic carried on China’s young high-speed rail system, the paper notes that it is already larger in volume than that on the entire French high-speed rail system and is rivaling the volume on the Japanese high-speed rail system.  Rapid growth in traffic on China’s high speed rail system will continue as the many lines under construction are completed, urban incomes rise, and the movement of the population from the rural areas to the cities continues.

A general picture is emerging in which high-speed rail, as in other countries, is competing strongly on short and medium-distance routes up to 1,000 km while air remains dominant over longer distances,” commented Richard Bullock, a railway expert and consultant to the World Bank.  Overall, however, and maybe surprising to some, passengers moving from air to high-speed rail have not been a major source of high speed rail ridership. A larger source has been ‘generated’ trips: new trips by passengers who were induced to travel by the greater convenience of high speed service.

Based on this evidence and the continuing strong growth in Chinese urban populations and incomes, the paper is cautiously optimistic about the long-term ridership (and hence economic viability) of the major trunk railways of the high-speed rail network in China. However, this optimism is tempered by the need to develop a sustainable financing mechanism in the short to medium term and to carefully weigh the costs and benefits of the peripheral extensions of the network.

The paper is the fourth of a series of papers on transport produced by the World Bank in Beijing.


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