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Chinese agenda

01 Jun 1998

HUGE EFFORTS are being made this month to knit together a complex patchwork of finance deals and partnerships that would allow the US$17bn build-operate-and-transfer deal for the 345 km Taipei - Kaohsiung high speed line to go ahead. If it does, Taiwan High Speed Rail Consortium will be launched on an ambitious project that could give Franco-German high speed train technology a firm place in Asia.

On the face of it, the Franco-German tie-up is unlikely (p411). But French high speed trains were married with German signalling and catenary to good effect on Spain's Madrid - Sevilla AVE high speed line in 1992. So a precedent exists.

Yet the rationale for the Eurotrain partnership is more complex. A bitter and destructive battle was waged between French and German groups in South Korea in the early 1990s, culminating in a deal for the TGV's backers that insiders suggest will not exactly be a horn of plenty. So the thinking is that half a cake is better than none.

Officially, the French and Germans are pledged to work together, and we have no doubt that the partnership has all the ingredients for success. But there were wistful comments of might-have-beens at the Eurotrain launch on May 4. One was that German Railway had developed plans for a double-deck ICE in the early 1990s using double-deck expertise built up at the DWA factories in eastern Germany before the Iron Curtain fell. In the end the idea was stillborn, and while it may be resurrected for ICE4 if the wide-bodied concept (RG 10.97 p637) is dropped, using proven technology from France is far quicker than going it alone.

There are good reasons for the joint approach. China has high speed ambitions as well, and the Beijing - Shanghai high speed line has moved back up the agenda. After a period when upgrading of the existing route was preferred, a 1300 km new line (RG 11.93 p765) is again the favoured option, with a price tag of around 100bn yuan for an alignment that may eventually permit 350 km/h. The High Speed Railway Pre-Feasibility Study Office says the project is being examined by the State Economic & Trade Commission, whose stamp of approval is critical.

There are suggestions that Chinese Railways is watching Taiwan closely to see how a private sector project performs in the wake of earlier schemes such as Eurotunnel and OrlyVAL. China would like to see its own private-sector showcase, and Taipei - Kaohsiung could point the way. With this in mind, Siemens and GEC Alsthom have already put together a Eurotrain-style bid for Beijing - Shanghai, with Siemens acting as leader with a 60% stake. There will be just one high speed line in Taiwan, but China offers many more opportunities. o