This Friday is Chinese New Year, the beginning of the Spring Festival and a weeklong national holiday in China. Nearly everyone in China is on the move. China’s transport ministry expects nearly 3 billion individual trips to be made during this year’s chunyun, or “spring rush.”
China is still a poor country, and most of those trips (as much as 80%) will likely be made by long-distance bus. But an increasing number of chunyun travelers will be cruising the country in air-conditioned comfort on China’s world-class high-speed rail network.
High-speed rail (HSR) in China has ballooned from a single 113 kilometers (70 mile) demonstration line built specially for the 2008 Beijing Olympics into a 25,000 kilometer (15,500 mile) nationwide system. That first Beijing-Tianjin line took three years to build. The rest of the national network took just another ten.
China’s originally-planned “4+4” network of four north-south and four east-west main lines is now nearing completion. An extended “8+8” network of 38,000 kilometers (24,000 miles) of high-speed rail is projected to be operational in 2025. Later improvements are likely to focus on speed rather than distance.
That said, China does not explicitly define exactly what constitutes “high-speed” rail, and definitive statistics are hard to come by. Until recently, contradictory press releases often reported different system lengths at the same time. But official statistics now seem to designate trains designed for speeds in excess of 250 km/h (155 mph) as high speed. On main intercity routes, Chinese HSR trains generally operate at 300 km/h (186 mph) with a top speed of 350 km/h (220 mph).
This year, Chinese authorities expect 390 million chunyun trips to be taken by rail, 58% of them by HSR. Much cheaper than air travel, HSR is faster and safer than conventional road and rail transportation. Though China cannot match Japan’s nearly spotless HSR safety record, it compares favorably with those of France, Germany and Spain, all of which have experienced fatal accidents. Given that China’s network is bigger than those of all other countries combined, its record is all the better by comparison.
Taking safety seriously
The safety record of China’s conventional rail system, by contrast, is atrocious. Until recently, official statistics routinely reported more than 1,000 deaths a year in rail accidents, with the 2016 figure of 932 dead representing a record low. But HSR is different.
China’s HSR system has suffered just one fatal accident, a 2011 crash in Wenzhou in eastern China’s Zhejiang province in which 40 people died. The accident was caused by a lightning strike that resulted in a signal failure in a poorly-designed “fail-safe” signaling system that turned out not to be fail-safe after all.
Chinese authorities initially seemed keen to cover up the Wenzhou accident, but faced with a crisis of confidence in HSR and a sudden drop in ridership, the government reversed course and came clean. It slowed down HSR construction for several months and slowed down HSR trains for the next six years, despite the fact that the accident actually occurred at low speed. Having restored passenger confidence in the HSR system, the 350 km/h top speed was restored in July, 2017.
Comac versus CRRC
China’s latest trainsets are designed to operate at speeds as high as 400 km/h (250 mph). Futuristic maglev concept trains are also being mooted in China, as in Japan and California, but even today’s “conventional” wheels-on-rails HSR is competitive with air travel. You can travel from Beijing to Shanghai in just five hours by HSR, compared to 2.5 hours by air. Throw in security and delays (which are rampant in China’s congested airspace), and HSR is the preferred option for most medium-length domestic journeys.
Last year the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (Comac) unveiled its first home-grown airliner, the C919. With China’s civil aviation market growing by more than 10% every year, Comac hopes to start mass producing the jet in 2021. Given strong central government support for the creation of a domestic aircraft manufacturing supply chain, it seems a safe bet that Comac will succeed in getting the C919 project off the ground.
But China’s rail passenger numbers are also showing 10% annual growth, and are building on a base five times as large as air. China’s HSR trainsets are made by a company called CRRC, short for China Railway Rolling-stock Corporation. The C919 will enter service in the early 2020s, but the CRRC Fuxing “China-standard electric multiple unit” (EMU) trainset is already in operation. And there are bound to be a lot more of them.
Rail is by its very nature a network business, while airlines can offer point-to-point service. That might give airlines an advantage in connecting certain city pairs. But China’s big cities are all connected by rail, and the rail is getting faster, safer, and more efficient all the time. China’s rail and air passenger numbers have been growing in lockstep for the last 10 years, but they can’t both grow at 10% forever. Which one will level off first is anyone’s guess.
The names China gives its trains may provide a hint. China’s first generation of HSR trainsets was given the name Hexie (“harmony”). Debuted in the era of Hu Jintao, their name reflected his slogan that China should build a “harmonious society.” Today’s Fuxing (“rejuvenation”) trainsets fly the flag for Xi Jinping’s program of national rejuvenation, his Chinese Dream. And if Xi is dreaming of future on rails, it’s safe to assume that future chunyun travelers will be taking the train, too.