In the six years since China opened its first high-speed rail line, total mileage of the network has equaled the sum of the rest of the world.
By the end of last year, the country’s system had grown to 15,000 km of dedicated track, connecting 28 of its 34 provincial regions.
China’s railway builders have also taken their plans global - a line to Western Europe is planned as well as already exporting rail technology and bullet trains.
The scale of the project is massive, but critics worry about corruption, safety and the price tag.
Thirty-eight bullet trains are averaging 300 km/h to travel from the capital to the country’s commercial and financial hub.
Leaving from Hangzhou, the Hangzhou–Shenzhen High Speed Line heads south and links the Yangtze River Delta and southeastern coastal areas with the Pearl River Delta, which are China’s major economic powerhouses.
A line linking Xinjiang’s Urumqi with Lanzhou in Gansu province opened up a fast track to prosperity for the country’s vast underdeveloped northwest areas.
The effects of transport-induced clustering upon business productivity have been fully captured in China, said a new World Bank report.
Ambition doesn’t stop in the Middle Kingdom.
The Lanzhou–Urumqi High-Speed Railway (length 1,776 kilometers), completed by the end of last year, will be instrumental in achieving its aim of connecting to Western Europe, part of China’s economic strategy to enable companies to trade directly with Central Asia and Europe.
A project to lay HSR tracks from Southwest China’s Kunming to Laos, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore is expected to start this year, enabling stronger China-ASEAN ties.
Called “the railway salesman”, Premier Li Keqiang pushes for contracts whenever he goes abroad.
The super salesman talked with 12 countries including Ethiopia, Nigeria, UK, USA, Russia, Kazakhstan and Thailand on railway cooperation last year, according to China Economic Weekly.
As of the first half of last year China’s top two train makers, China CNR Corporation and CSR Corporation, have won 27.63 billion yuan ($4.5 billion) worth of orders from abroad. Their rail products have been shipped to more than 90 countries.
Fast work, ample experience and low costs are at the cutting edge. The weighted average unit cost for a line was 129m yuan ($20.7 million) per km for a 350 km/h project and 87m yuan ($14 million) per km for a 250 km/h project. This is significantly less than the 300 million yuan ($48.3 million) it will cost in other countries.
China used to be reliant on foreigners for railway engineering. Even a decade ago it was European knowhow behind high speed rail.
When China decided in 2004 to build its first high-speed railway, it imported trains from foreign makers such as the German conglomerate Siemens, the Japanese corporation Kawasaki and the French firm Alstom.
Chinese engineers then re-designed internal train components and built indigenous trains that can reach operational speeds of up to 380 km/h (240 mph).
Now the UK is eyeing China to help build its domestic lines, a project helping fuel China’s high speed rail ambition. Indeed, the world has come full circle – given that the British first brought the technology to the troubled oriental country in the late nineteenth century during the Qing Dynasty.
Public faith in high-speed rail was devastated in 2011 when a train crash killed 40 people and injured nearly 200, raising safety worries on the fast-expanding network.
Corruption is another concern. Former Railways Minister Liu Zhijun was given a suspended death sentence for accepting more than 64m yuan ($10m) in bribes over 25 years, notably, for awarding government rail contracts. His confession implicated nearly 20 top railway officials, besides senior SOE leaders and business bigwigs.
The project weighed heavily on finances. By September, national railway operator the China Railway Corporation owed 3.5 trillion yuan in debt; at least 2 trillion yuan of that amount went for the construction of high-speed railways.
China plans to expand its own high-speed network to roughly 19,000 km by the end of this year. A high density network spanning the length and breadth of the country is eyed by 2030.
This will be a big year for made-in-China rail going global. A high-speed project linking China and Thailand is to start, and all eyes are on China’s second bid for Mexico’s $3.75 billion high-speed project.