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Development focus turns west

01 Aug 2000

INTRO: China's Ministry of Railways has unveiled a 15-year strategic plan for development of the national network, which will form the basis of the 10th five-year plan now being drawn up for 2001-05. Continued investment will see the upgrading of existing lines and large-scale expansion in the west and southwest

CONSTRUCTION WORK is getting into its stride on Chinese Railways' 1129 km east-west trunk line between Nanjing and Xi'an, following a formal start of work ceremony on May 29 (RG 7.00 p400). The target is ambitious; the 950 km from Xi'an to Hefei is due to be completed by 2002, and the final link after another year or two.

The line is one of several new corridors being developed by the Ministry of Railways to support a national strategy to open up economic development in western China. During the five years from 2003-08, the ministry envisages spending 100bn yuan on rail expansion in the western region alone, compared to a national total of 245bn yuan for the 9th plan (Map RG 9.98 p613). By 2005 the rail network in western China should have been expanded to about 18000 route-km.

The western focus was launched by Prime Minister Zhu Rongji on March 5. Addressing the Ninth National People's Congress, he called for 'the implementation of a large-scale development strategy in west China to speed up the development of the central and western regions'. These include the provinces of Shaanxi, Ningxia, Sichuan, Guizhou, Yunnan, Qinghai, Gansu, and Xinjiang, plus Tibet. He also emphasised the 'need to accelerate infrastructure development' on a national basis, highlighting rail in particular.

With an area of 5·4 million km2, the western region accounts for 56% of China's total land area. But its population of 285 million is only 23% of the national total, and its contribution to GDP is just 14%. Over 90% of the population of western China is classified as poor, with 307 counties receiving poverty relief aid.

Responding to the Prime Minister's vision, Railways Minister Fu Zhihuan confirmed that rail would play a key role in the implementation of the western development strategy. He admitted that the existing network has a limited penetration, low technical standards and restricted capacity. There are few links between the provinces, or with the more prosperous eastern regions.

As a first step, work will concentrate on the east-west corridors. As well as Xi'an - Hefei, another new line is planned from Zhongwei to Taiyuan, providing a direct link westwards from Beijing. Double-tracking will be completed on the Baoji - Lanzhou section of the Lianyungang - Lanzhou east-west corridor and the whole of the Zhuzhou - Liupanshui route. Further south, construction work will concentrate on the Suining - Chongqing - Huaihua line, started in the 9th plan period, plus the Daxian - Wanxian line, which will be pushed through eastwards from Wanxian to Zhicheng.

Intra-provincial links now under construction will be completed, notably the three north-south routes linking Shenmu - Yan'an, Xi'an - Ankang, and Neijiang - Kunming, where tracklaying began in June. Mr Fu also wants to see the rapid completion of design work for the planned rail link to Tibet.

Thirdly, work is to be accelerated on the international corridors leading to Central Asia and Europe. Top priority will be the link from Kashi to Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan (p485), although planning will begin for other pan-Asian railways.

As part of the programme, upgrading work will focus on capacity expansion on existing lines. Electrification of the Chengdu - Kunming line is due to be completed this year, and capacity improvements are planned for the Xining - Golmud line leading towards Tibet.

Technical advances

According to Mr Fu, the western lines will also benefit from an ongoing programme to improve the technical status of the entire CR network. Under the long-term strategy, technology throughout the network will be brought up to the international standards of the 1990s by the end of the 10th plan. By 2005 all principal routes should be suitable for 160 km/h, with 200 km/h on dedicated passenger routes, plus the first true high speed railway between Beijing and Shanghai.

Other areas highlighted for improvements over the next 15 years are heavy haul freight, plus the development of a network of fast freight services for general merchandise. Further investment in information technology is envisaged, together with improvements to signalling, safety supervision and control.

Technical improvements are already under way, and the introduction of new locomotives and rolling stock will allow significant cuts in journey times from October 1 this year. The Urumqi - Beijing trip is to be cut from 60 to 48h, and Urumqi - Shanghai from 64 to 51h (RG 5.00 p207).

Despite the substantial expansion of the Chinese network in the last decade, the government still considers that the country does not have enough railways to stimulate and handle economic development. At the end of 1998, there was only 69 route-km of railway per 10000 km2, ranking the country 60th in the world. On a per-capita basis, there was only 55mm of railway per person!

During the 1990s, the road network grew by 10·4% and airline route length by 129%, but the rail network only increased by 7·8%. Over the same period, investment in the post and telecommunication sector, aviation, roads and waterways increased significantly faster than rail construction spending. Recognising rail's global superiority in areas such as energy saving, environmental friendliness, efficiency and safety, the government aims to speed up railway construction and harness these advantages for the 21st century.

Yangtze valley line

As part of its longer-term strategic plan, the Ministry of Railways has commissioned studies for the creation of a rail corridor along the Yangtze River valley from Shanghai to Chongqing. The route was initially proposed in the late 1970s, but was subsequently pigeonholed. Priority in the southwest was given to other schemes such as the Nanning - Kunming line completed in 1998 and the Nijiang - Kunming line now under construction. However, last October Premier Zhu announced that the government would like to see a Shanghai - Chongqing line built as soon as possible to connect economic developments in eastern and western China.

With no rail corridor linking Chongqing or Chengdu to Shanghai, there is heavy reliance on road and water transport. However, these are deemed inadequate for stimulating development in the region, to permit the exploitation of mineral resources of the southwest. The line is also seen as encouraging the movement of advanced technologies and talented people from Shanghai and the coastal areas to the central and west regions.

Since the completion of the Beijing - Kowloon railway, there are eight north-south routes crossing the Yangtze. But there is a 700 km belt with no east-west railway between the Lianyungang - Lanzhou line in the north and the Hangzhou - Zhuzhou line in the south.

The new corridor would incorporate the planned 237 km line from Wuhu to Anqing, and the existing Jiujiang - Wuhan line. It would then strike southwest from Wuhan via Shashi and Youyang, parallelling the Daxian - Wanxian - Zhicheng line now under construction but south of the Fangdou Shan mountains.

The new line would pass through six provinces: Sichuan, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangxi, Anhui, and Jiangsu, and open up several areas with no rail access - notably a region of 240000 km2 where the provinces of Hunan, Hubei, Sichuan and Guizhou meet.

CAPTION: CR has considerable experience of building railways through mountainous terrain. As the network grows to reach the west and southwest, even bigger challenges lie ahead

CAPTION: Introduction of fast freight services will improve CR's ability to compete against the rapidly expanding road network

CAPTION: Desert conditions present huge difficulties for keeping railways operational, especially in northwest China