China’s High-speed Railway Comes of Age

By staff report LU RUCAI 

THE Code for the Design of High-speed Railways — the first high-speed rail design standard to have been ratified and published by the National Railway Administration, formally came into effect on February 1 this year. Experts believe this norm will act as a systematic building standard for China’s high-speed railway development, and be of help in locating overseas markets for this new industry.

Less than two decades after China’s initial forays into high-speed railways, both the technology and railway networks are expanding spectacularly. Rail travel in China is more convenient now than it has ever been, and the country’s steadily maturing high-speed railway industry is widely recognized in foreign markets.


Chinese Speed

In 1992, the then Ministry of Railways promulgated a development plan for China’s railway sector in the following decade. It proposed research and development of railway technology and construction of high-speed passenger transport trains traveling at more than 200 km per hour. The authority also launched the pre-feasibility study of the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed railway, at a time when the maximum operating speed of China’s passenger trains was still around 80 to 110 kilometers per hour and that of cargo trains around 70 kilometers per hour.

The year 2002 witnessed accomplishment of the self-designed and constructed Qinhuangdao-Shenyang high-speed railway on which trains traveled at 200 km per hour. In November 2002, the DJJ2 “China Star” Electric Multiple Unit (EMU) reached a record trial speed of 321.5 km per hour, so affirming that China had mastered EMU design capability.

In January 2004, the State Council passed, after due deliberation, the Medium- and Long-term Railway Network Plan. The plan was modified in October 2008, so creating the blueprint for China’s high-speed railway expansion. According to the new scheme, by 2020 the national railway mileage will reach more than 120,000 km, of which 16,000 km will be exclusively passenger train lines. The focus will be on the construction of eight railways across China’s territory whose transportation arteries will connect the whole country. A batch of inter-city high speed railways will be simultaneously constructed in populous economically developed areas.

To achieve this goal, the Ministry of Railways set down the fundamental principle of “bringing in cutting-edge technology to combine with domestic design and production, and create China’s own brand.” A new program operation mode would at the same time introduce a small amount of overseas products assembled with domestically manufactured components. April 2007 marked Chinese railways’ sixth “speed boost” that raised to 200-250 km per hour the speed of the busy nationwide trunk lines. It was then that CRH (China Railways High-speed) set out to make passenger rail transportation more convenient.

A real breakthrough came on August 1, 2008, when the Beijing-Tianjin Intercity Railway went into operation. Trains on this line traveled at an incredible 350 km per hour, so cutting the journey time to just 30 minutes compared to the 110 minutes of normal trains. In 2010, the annual volume of passenger traffic in the Beijing-Tianjin Intercity Railway hit 30 million.

Foreign experts who introduced technologies to China agreed that it would take China eight to 10 years to increase the speed of its trains from 200 kilometers to 350 kilometers per hour. But they were wrong; it took just two years to reach this goal.

Furthermore, China initiated research into a new generation of high-speed trains that would travel at 380 kilometers per hour. In 2010, the China South Locomotive and Rolling Stock Corporation Limited (CSR) domestically developed CRH380A rolled off the production line. Trial operations between certain Beijing-Shanghai intercity high-speed railroad transport sites achieved a maximum speed of 486.1 km per hour. In June 2011 the high-speed train took just four hours to travel the 1,300 kilometers between Beijing and Shanghai.

On January 9, 2015, director of the National Railway Administration Lu Dongfu announced that, as of the end of 2014, the operational mileage of railways had exceeded 110,000 km, with 15,000 kilometers of high-speed railroads, and that the daily operation of EMUs had reached 2,600-plus trains. These statistics confirmed that China had the world’s longest operational mileage and largest number of high-speed trains. Statistics show that from January to July 2014, China’s EMU passengers exceeded 500 million, 33.7 percent more than the previous year.


Full Bloom

After years of unremitting efforts, China has perfected a high-speed rail technology system. With regard to engineering technology, the system is well adapted to China’s complicated geographical and climatic conditions. It has successfully overcome challenges in infrastructure construction, including subgrades, bridges, tunnels and stations. It also resolved other specialized technical problems, such as ballastless track, traction power supply, and communication signals.

On June 19, 2014, a site inspection of results of the national project for high-speed train key technology research and equipment development was convened in Qingdao City of Shandong Province. The purpose of the project was independent research into China’s fast trains capable of a speed of more than 350 kilometers per hour, based on the success of the Beijing-Shanghai intercity high-speed train. It also aimed to establish a system of high-speed rail equipment manufacture, applications, and innovations, featuring independent intellectual property rights, international competitiveness, and sustainable development competency. The institutes include more than 140, with 596 authorized patents, including 143 invention patents. Meanwhile 26 national standards and a further 226 industry standards have been set for the relevant high-speed train technology, so laying a foundation for China’s independent intellectual property and hence innovation in this industry. This landmark achievement – the 350 km per hour CRH380 — has now become the main force of China’s high-speed rail equipment, with a safe operation mileage of 400 million kilometers. 

In addition to being conversant with high-speed train technology, Chinese engineers had also to tackle on-the-spot construction challenges. There have been fierce debates in China on whether or not high-speed railways should be built on ballast. Traditional tracks are supported on wooden sleepers resting on ballast; the innovative method is to lay the railway tracks on high strength concrete slabs. The former way saves costs during the project construction period, but the faster the train runs, the bumpier the ride. Substantial investment is also needed for due maintenance.  But although the cost of the new solution is 1.3 to 1.5 times that previously adopted, its advantage lies in maintaining trains’ high-speed and stable operation and reducing the need for repairs, so saving expenditure and prolonging service time. After due consideration, therefore, the Ministry of Railway made the final decision to use the new ballastless track technology.

As there was then no off-the-shelf technology, engineers had to overcome many difficulties such as geological subsidence and selection of an appropriate type of bridge. The rail tracks built this way helped high-speed trains achieve the goal of “smooth and steady operation,” to the extent that not a drop spilled from train passengers’ soft drinks, even at speeds of 350 kilometers per hour.

The rapid development of China’s high-speed railways has also boosted economic growth and the optimization and upgrading of industrial structure, so giving rise to a significant number of high-tech innovative enterprises. Nowadays more than 640 first and second level supporting enterprises are directly bound up with EMUs.


Going Global

On February 3, 2014, the made-in- China CRH380A sped across the NASDAQ big screen in Times Square. The video advertisement, sponsored by CSR, presented the huge changes in people’s lives amid the high-speed railway era, showcasing China’s international image as a high-end equipment manufacturer.

China’s high-speed train equipment exports in recent years have, in fact, matched the speed of the ad. Although the CSR bid for the Mexico high-speed railway was canceled, CSR nevertheless exported subway and light rail trains to countries like India and Malaysia. CNR has moreover sold its products to various countries and regions such as Uzbekistan, Brazil, Thailand, and the United States.

World Bank statistics show that the cost to China of building high-speed railways was two thirds that in other countries. To reach a speed of 350 km per hour, China’s unit cost of infrastructure construction for every kilometer is US $17 million to US $21 million, as compared with US $25 million to US $39 million in Europe.

The news broke on December 30, 2014, of the CSR-CNR merger. The new corporation was named CRRC Corporation Limited — a move regarded as effectively avoiding vicious competition overseas between the two giants in the industry, and as propitious for the ensuing competition between China’s high-speed railway products and those of its overseas counterparts on the world market.

Premier Li Keqiang, who has recommended China’s high-speed railways globally, paid a visit to CSR last July. He emphasized that “the sustainable vitality of China’s equipment lies in its quality,” which was also the “fundamental guarantee of worldwide recognition.”