Getting Connected

5 May 2011

West bank of PRD finally gets a railway line

By Thomas Chan

The west bank of the Pearl River Delta region (PRD) has for a long time lacked a railway line to connect the cities and towns scattered in the region to the provincial capital of Guangzhou, and via Guangzhou to the rest of the country. Due to the problems of accessibility and connectivity, these cities and towns have therefore been more or less isolated up till now. The same is true for Macao and Zhuhai.

The Beijing–Guangzhou and Guangzhou–Hong Kong railways, by contrast, have been in operation for more than a hundred years. The Beijing–Wuhan line started to run in 1905 and the Wuhan–Guangzhou line in 1936. In 1957 the two railway sections were joined together by the bridge across the Yangtze River. The Guangzhou–Kowloon line was completed in 1910/11. Yet it was not until 1979, after China began its economic reform and open-door policy, that the through train from Kowloon to Beijing resumed after a break of 30 years. Despite the long period of disruption, the Beijing–Kowloon railway has contributed significanctly over the years to the integration of Hong Kong with mainland China. It has facilitated interaction and exchange as well as served as a route to refuge for Chinese at times of political turmoil in the mainland.

A century-old plan

The rise of Hong Kong has led to Macao losing its role as a major international bridge between China and the overseas. The Beijing–Kowloon railway has contributed to the success of Hong Kong as a free-trade port connected to the Chinese mainland both by sea and by land. Macao has not been so fortunate. The Portuguese government signed an agreement with the Imperial Government of the Qing Dynasty on 11 November 1904 for the construction of a railway going through Zhuhai to both Guangzhou and Macao. However, with the change of regimes, it never materialised. In 1987, when Zhuhai became a special economic zone just like Shenzhen, the local government put forth a plan for a Guangzhou–Zhuhai railway. In January 1993 the then State Planning Commission approved the railway, and in both 1993 and 1997 the Zhuhai government held ceremonies to launch the construction of the railway. Both failed to lead to any progress, and in the first half of 1999 the project was suspended due to lack of funding.

It was only in 2004 that the Guangdong government approved the Guangzhou–Zhuhai Inter-city Railway as part of the regional inter-city railway network of the PRD. In September 2007 the State Commission of Development and Reform (successor of the State Planning Commission) finally approved the resumption of construction of the Guangzhou-Zhuhai line.

Eventually the Guangzhou–Zhuhai Intercity Railway was completed and started operation in January 2011. The Guangzhou–Zhuhai Railway is slated for inauguration in 2012. There will be a division of labour between the two: the inter-city trains will cater for passengers, whilst the Guangzhou-Zhuhai line will be mostly for freight transport, its terminal situated in the Zhuhai port of Gaolan. So after more than a hundred years, the west bank of the PRD will now have railways connecting to the provincial capital – exactly a hundred years after the construction of the Guangzhou–Kowloon Railway.

The delay may explain the economic eclipse of Macao in the last century, and the lackluster development of the cities on the west bank. Included amongst these is Zhuhai, which has become one of the special economic zones, but which has lagged substantially behind Shenzhen in every way. The new railways are thus strategically very important to Zhongshan, Jiangmen, Zhuhai, and especially to Macao. The MSAR is going to build a light-rail system within the Special Administrative Region interchanging with the Guangzhou–Zhuhai Intercity Railway at Gongbei. The new rail links are crucial to helping the cities to rejoin the main business activities that centre on Guangzhou, very important to both Foshan on the one hand and Shenzhen on the other.

Expanding network

More importantly, the two Guangzhou–Zhuhai railways are just the beginning of the extensive railway network the Guangdong government is building to revitalise the economies and societies on the west bank of the estuary of the PRD. There are other projects under construction to develop the railway links on the west bank into a local network embedded into the larger provincial and national networks. They are: the Zhongshan–Dongguan Intercity Line (to be completed by the end of 2012), the Guangdong West Coast Railway (planned to come into service in 2014), the Guangzhou–Foshan–Jiangmen–Zhongshan–Zhuhai Railway (whose construction is due to start in 2011), and an extension of the Guangzhou–Zhuhai Intercity line (extended to the Zhuhai Airport and to be completed by 2015). The first cross-Pearl- River-estuary Shenzhen–Zhongshan Intercity line is also expected to be in service before 2015.

Beyond the current 12th Five-year Plan (2011–2015), there will be also the second cross-estuary line, the Zhuhai–Shenzhen Intercity Line, which is yet to be approved. By 2015, there will be a dense local railway network, centring on Zhuhai and Zhongshun, connecting to Guangzhou and Shenzhen the two key hubs of the provincial and national railway systems (including high-speed railways). The west-bank cities of the PRD will be merged into a residential zone one hour from the centre, creating a three-hour economic zone of the PRD. The latter will extend into capitals and major cities in the neighbouring provinces. In particular, the Guangdong Western Coast Railway will in the future link the coastal high-speed railway from Shanghai and Ningbo in East China to Hainan and the Beibu Bay in Guangxi.

Accessibility and connectivity

The immediate effect of such a railway-led economic integration will be the improvement of the accessibility and connectivity of the area within the emerging PRD metropolitan region, avoiding any further marginalisation. It will also, through the railway connections at Gongbei and probably later at Hengqin, create a ‘seamless’ (as suggested by authorities in Zhuhai and Macao) connection of Macao with the PRD network, facilitating the integration of Macao into the regional system. By having the cross-estuary railways, the west bank cities and Macao will be part of the great circuit of subways, intercity lines and high-speed railways of the PRD. Guangzhou will remain as the centre of everything, but Zhuhai, and more importantly, Zhongshan, will be only half an hour to an hour’s travelling distance from the centre. They will find themselves in the middle of the metropolitan region, enjoying all the benefits of what the metropolitanisation process can offer.

Shrinking distance

Economic and social integration should be the main outcomes of the intense investments into railways in the area. With only one hour’s travelling distance from Macao or Xinhui in Jiangmen to Guangzhou, people will be able to travel to and fro easily. But more importantly, the difference between the property prices between Guangzhou city centre and the localities in the west bank of the PRD will drive businesses and residences away towards these localities. In terms of residences, the process has already started in the northern part of Panyu, which is adjacent to Guangzhou city centre. A large commuter community has emerged there, attracted by the significantly lower local property prices than in the Guangzhou old urban districts. Zhongshan, which is next to Foshan and Guangzhou, has also benefited already from the overspill of housing demand from Guangzhou and Foshan even before the two Guangzhou–Zhuhai railway lines have been put into operation.

International experiences, such as those of Japan and Western Europe, have shown that the shrinking of travelling distances by fast or high-speed railways can create an urban pattern of concentrated decentralisation. Concentrated clusters of businesses and residences spring up around railway stations, especially around interchanges and hubs. Decentralisation from the city centres takes place as the shrinking distance has an impact on location choices of individuals and firms due to the large differentials in property prices between the city centre and the newly connected places.

Road to success?

This pattern of urbanisation is very different to that supported by the proliferation of highways and roads. In Dongguan, for example, urbanisation has been linear along the highways. Supported by the extensive road system, they look very similar to urban sprawls in US cities – wasteful of land use and inconvenient for commuters, even when they travel by car, because of traffic jams. In Dongguan both businesses and residences have been scattered all over the city as well as at the town and village level, much against the urbanisation advantages of agglomeration and networking. The metropolitanisation process unleashed by Guangzhou by means of an extensive system of railways will, on the contrary, lead to an intensive pattern of urbanisation, concentrating at the nodes and hubs of the railway system, with much better benefits of agglomeration and networking.

A long way to go

However, the benefits will not be seen immediately. So far only the Guangzhou– Zhuhai intercity line is in operation, and only travels up to Zhuhai North station, 4 stations away from Gongbei, near Macao. Most of the stations along the line are located far away from city and town centres, with poor connecting public transport. It will take years, probably until 2015, for the lines to be completed and for better arrangements for connecting transport. The current inflation of property prices in Zhongshan and Zhuhai have been more a result of speculation and investment rather than actual uses. The prices are bound to come down after people realise that commuting is still not very convenient even with the intercity railways. It will be a few years from now till all the facilities and services emerge to make the stations better connecting points for commuters, travellers, shoppers and business people.

A new metropolis

Even in these early days, with the intercity line incomplete, the railway system has gradually gained popularity as it is even cheaper than travelling by car and bus. Many people have already started to use the trains in conjunction with the park-and-ride system. It would be better still if the railway-station operators added services to cater for the needs of the passengers, such as cafes and small shops selling souvenirs, food and other minor items of local speciality. The station economy of Europe and Japan may provide a good reference point. A better-serviced station would attract clients and induce passengers. Further business flows would in turn help to offer better services at the station.

There are still a few years to go before the network is fully operational. This may be our best chance now to consider how to utilise the railways for business and other purposes. No matter how the stations are developed, the greater connectivity of the railways will save travelling and business costs of the local economies in the west bank of the PRD. It will also help Guangzhou at one end and Macao at the other to promote their services to residents and businesses within the railway network. With the cross-estuary railway lines in action before 2015, there will also be integration and more intensified exchanges between the west bank and the east bank. In the coming years we should see a steady metropolitanisation process covering more and more areas in the PRD. A metropolis from the PRD, Hong Kong and Macao will emerge and impress the world by the end of this decade.