Recent news that the British government will back the development of HS3, a project that will see a connection between England’s northern cities, looks set to start a chorus of protest similar to the much hyped STOP HS2. Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party, have already sharpened their claws, ready to pounce, claiming HS3 ‘will leave Wales in the slow lane’ signalling regional disgruntlement will be added to environmental and economic objections. With all these hurdles to manoeuvre around, it is likely to be years before anyone of us gets to sit on a high speed train seat.
Turn your head to East and you’ll see a country striking away in the high speed rail stakes: China. High speed rail arrived in China in the late ’90s when a line was constructed from Qinhuangdao to Shenyang – symbolically perhaps as the former is also the start of a certain long wall in China. The land of the rising sun now proudly hosts nearly 12,000km of rail with that number surging to dizzying heights with more and more projects in the pipeline and weekly openings of new lines.
Perhaps the most impressive and eye-catching is the 1,700km+ rail line being built in the sparse lands of the West, over mountains and deserts, proving the Chinese government is scared of nothing in its sprint in becoming the high speed rail trailblazer of the world – not even nature. But delve deeper and high speed rail is no communist vanity project. Take, for example, the link being constructed between megacity Chongqing and smaller city outpost Wanzhou. The current time to get from the region’s second city to the economic boom of the regional capital is currently six hours. By the time the new line is in place it will be reduced to just one. This is typical of Chinese investments in rail where cities of lower millions are linked to the cities of higher millions in ‘city region’ like developments.
Even if Chinese growth declines to Western averages over the coming years, they certainly fixed the roof when the sun was shining. In fact they built a new house in a new city just after fixing the roof. So why am I waxing lyrical about Chinese railways? This handy graphic will tell you why. Not only are the Chinese streaking away in their own country, they have done what they have known to work in the past 50 years: export.
Only this week we saw the Chinese Railway Corp win a contract to build high speed rail in Mexico. They won in an uncontested procurement process because they offered an astonishing offer of funding 85 per cent of the capital costs, coming in under budget and beating the time scales set forward by Mexican contractors. It’s not the first time China has invested. The recent East African rail line will see China once again stumping up the cash and the work, raking in the profits from the expected economic boom in the region. Who said Chinese growth cannot possibly continue?
What is even more worrying for all other leading rail countries is the imminent merger of CNR and CSR, China’s two train makers. Not only will China be steaming away with laying tracks, they will be providing the rolling stock to run over them too. While nations such as Japan and Germany may be shuddering at the thought of the challenge ahead facing their dominance, perhaps the rest of the world is better off sitting back and watching the Asian dragon roar around the world – at high speed of course.
Robert Ford is UK Director of International Teachers China and works as a freelance consultant. He writes more here.