China has faced a lot of criticism about its new high-speed rail service, especially after a train derailed in July 2010, killing 40 and injuring 192. But a new World Bank study found that the service is already larger in volume than that on the entire French high-speed rail network, and is rivaling the volume on the Japanese high-speed rail system.
The report forecasts that rapid growth in traffic on China’s high-speed rail system will continue, as new lines currently under construction are completed, urban incomes rise, and the movement of the population from rural areas to cities continues.
High-speed rail services have now been operating in China for three years, and the sheer speed with which the rail system has been built is awe-inspiring. As many as 100,000 workers per line have built about 5,000-miles of track in just six years—sometimes ahead of schedule. The Beijing-to-Shanghai line not originally expected to open until 2012, opened early. The entire system is set to be completed by 2020.
“A general picture is emerging in which high-speed rail, as in other countries, is competing strongly on short and medium-distance routes up to 1,000 km while air remains dominant over longer distances,” said Richard Bullock, a railway expert and consultant to the World Bank and an author on the report.
For the United States and Europe, the implications are huge. China’s manufacturing and global export abilities are likely to grow as more cities are connected and workers can move faster. The United States has had trouble getting bipartisan support for a high-speed rail service, although President Obama is a strong supporter.
Many thought rail ridership in China would come from passengers moving from air to high-speed rail. But this has not been the case. Instead, a larger source of ridership has been ‘generated’ trips, or new trips by passengers who are traveling because of the greater convenience of a high-speed service.
Evidence suggests that high-speed rail can compete with air travel at distances up to 1,000 kilometers, but not over longer distances. For shorter distances, it seems to be able to take almost all of the market share from buses as long as train stations are conveniently located. But there are still more new passengers, who have never traveled these routes before, using high-speed rail, than former bus or air passengers switching to the train service. This implies a very high demand for high-speed rail service - a positive sign.
The report is “cautiously optimistic” about the long-term ridership and economic viability of the major high-speed railway network in China. “However, this optimism is tempered by the need to develop a sustainable financing mechanism in the short to medium term and to carefully weigh the costs and benefits of the peripheral extensions of the network,” the report concluded.
Meanwhile, last month, heavy rain caused a section of a 180-mile high-speed rail link in central China, set to open in May, to collapse, state news agency Xinhua said. There were no reports of any injuries from the collapsed track.
China's cabinet criticized the railways ministry last December for poor safety standards.
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