A not so fair wind from the east

I have visited China twice in my life. The first was a business trip about thirty years ago and the second was as a tourist about seven years ago. The difference in what I saw in those two trips was staggering. It is impossible not to be impressed by the massive economic advances that have been made. I defy you to visit Shanghai for example without being totally bowled over by the amazing skyline that has sprung up in a handful of years.

However all this has been achieved at a high cost.China is an environmentalist’s nightmare. Everywhere you go there are chimneys belching out thick black smoke; you can actually taste the pollution in your throat in cities like Beijing. Whole quarters of ancient towns have been levelled for modern buildings and the earth’s resources are being consumed at a truly alarming rate. All aspects of the environment – cultural, historic, health, landscape, biology and natural resources – come a very poor second to economic requirements. The word “sustainability”, it appears, does not translate well into Mandarin.

With this in mind, I am amazed to be able to bring you a story from China about high speed rail that is good news for the environment. The Chinese twist to events is that it is purely economic motives that lie behind the story and that the environmental benefits are just consequential.

It appears that until recently the high speed rail supremo in China was a certain Liu Zhijun. Mr Liu appears to have blotted his party membership card and has been replaced as railway minister for “serious disciplinary violations”. Mr Liu has also dragged down with him the deputy chief engineer at the railway ministry, Zhang Shuguang. Both of these gentlemen, like our own railways supremo Philip Hammond, are it appears total enthusiasts for high speed rail and totally deaf to any critics.

Now I can see that in a huge country like China there is a place for high speed rail. During my first trip I travelled by train from Shanghai to Beijing; if my memory if accurate it took about nineteen hours. So the new 380 kph high speed railway between these two cities will certainly be an improvement and, at full speed, will bring the journey time down to around four hours. However, for those with the means to chose, I suspect that aviation will remain the favourite travel mode for this journey.

The upheaval in the railways ministry in China was reported in an article dated 14th April on the Financial Times website (available on subscription only here), under the headline China acts on high-speed rail safety fears.

The article advises that the new minister is Sheng Guangzu and it is apparent from the report that Mr Sheng is making good use of his new broom. In an amazing volte-face by the Chinese administration he is reported in the People’s Daily as announcing that the top speed on the country’s main high speed lines will be reduced from 350 kph to 300 kph. The official Communist party mouthpiece quotes Mr Sheng as saying: “This will offer more safety. At the same time this will allow more variation in ticket prices based on market principles.”

The FT report reveals the reasons behind this announcement. One of these is particular to the situation in China. Apparently whilst the train sets were produced by Chinese companies, the engineering is largely based upon foreign designs; usual practice in China you might think. The problem is that the train designs being copied were only intended for operating speeds of up to 250 kph and there are doubts about whether the Chinese adaptations will be safe at higher operating speeds.

The FT quotes a professor at Beijing Transportation University, Zhoa Jian, as saying: “The plans to run the trains at such high speeds posed a big safety risk.”

The other reason for reducing the operating speed is to lower energy usage and operating costs, and this has implications for high speed rail systems throughout the world. According to Mr Zhoa, lowering the operating speeds would also help to pay for the extremely expensive new network by reducing ticket prices and increasing passenger numbers.

The FT also reports that the Beijing to Shanghai route has not escaped the effects of this policy change; the 380 kph planned speed will now become 300 kph and the journey time will be increased somewhat. Regional non-trunk high speed lines will operate at between 200 kph and 250 kph, while most railways in central and western China will operate at less than 200 kph. It also reports that the main lines will operate bullet trains at lower speeds than the new 300 kph maximum, which will cost less to ride, in an attempt to increase the number of passengers on those routes.

One final shock announcement from Mr Sheng was that expenditure on railway construction in the coming five years has been scaled back significantly and that some planned high speed routes would be replaced with ordinary lines.

I trust that someone in his private office ensured that the FT article was placed on the Transport Secretary’s desk. Further I hope that Mr Hammond read it and will have the wisdom to see that the writing is on the wall when a country with 91,000 km of high speed track is beginning to have doubts about the future of this technology.

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