Global Track – China sees its railways covering the world

2 November 2015

In just eight years, China has built the largest network of high-speed railways on earth. Now it wants to do the same around the world.

The plan includes a line to link Beijing and Moscow in 33 hours, and routes across South America from the Atlantic to the Pacific and across Africa from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic – something the European colonial powers never achieved. Never in history has a country proposed such an ambitious programme.

If they are all built, they will transform the economies of the countries through which they pass, like the trans-Pacific railway in the United States in the 19th century, which opened up the western states to settlement by farmers and industrial growth.

New lines running across the Eurasian land mass, funded by Chinese money, are an important part of the ‘One Road, One Belt’ initiative launched by President Xi Jinping in 2013.

Premier Li Keqiang said: “China’s manufactured goods have become popular around the world. Now our equipment is going abroad and is earning a good reputation.”

At home, it has built 16,000 km of high-speed railway connecting 160 cities, from Harbin in the north to Nanning in the south and from Qingdao in the east to Urumqi in the west. In 2014, it carried 2.49 million passengers a day, making it the most heavily used network in the world.

According to the official media, China is in talks with 28 countries on high-speed rail projects. They have printed maps showing lines from Harbin to London, via Astana, Moscow, Kiev and Warsaw and from Urumqi to Germany via Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Iran. There is even a route from Harbin through Siberia across the Bering Straits to Alaska and Canada.

Given the wars, conflicts and hatreds in many of these regions, it is hard to imagine that all these lines will be built. But the ambition of China is there for all to see.

New trans-Siberian railway

Russia is an important piece of the One Road, One Belt initiative.

Working with Russian firms, Chinese companies are building a high-speed line that is due to be completed by 2018 from Moscow to Kazan, capital of the Russian republic of Tatarstan, a distance of 770 kilometres. It will cut the travel time from the current 14 hours to three and a half.  The investment is 1.06 trillion rubles, of which a portion will come from China.

The line is due to be extended from Kazan to Urumqi, capital of the western region of Xinjiang.

Russia’s economy relies heavily on exports of raw materials like oil, gas, timber and minerals, many of them located in the centre and east of the country, while the markets are in China and Europe. It is reliant on railways to transport these materials. Following its annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine, Russia has faced restrictions on access to western capital markets; so it needs Chinese capital and technical expertise more than ever.

The most dramatic project of the ‘One Road, One Belt’ initiative in Russia is a proposed high-speed line between Beijing and Moscow, running through Kazakhstan; a distance of 7,000 km, it would cut the journey time from the current six days to 30 hours. It would run south of the trans-Siberian railway, via Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan.

In January 2015, the Beijing city government announced that the line would be built at a cost of US$242 billion.

First Vice President of Russian Railways Alexander Misharin said he expected construction would take from 8 to 10 years. He compared the new railway network to the Suez Canal “in terms of scale and significance”.

But, while China can certainly build its share of the line, there is uncertainty on the Russian side. In part because of the western sanctions, Russia is heading toward a recession. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has proposed a postponement of the line until the country has more money to spare.

This Pharaonic project involves construction across some of the world’s most inhospitable terrain, including desert and steppe, with temperatures falling far below zero during winter.

Transforming Africa

More than any other continent, Africa needs railways. China has been very active there, promising to build what none of the European colonial powers – Britain, France, Portugal, Belgium or Germany – were able to do: a railway from the Indian to the Atlantic Ocean.

At the end of the 19th century, British colonialist Cecil John Rhodes announced a plan to build a Cape-Cairo railway, linking the north and south of the continent. By the mid-1930s, a substantial part of this was completed; but it was never finished.

Similarly, both France and Portugal announced plans to build a railway linking the two oceans; but neither materialised.

The Chinese plan has a better chance of success. In February this year, a line 1,344-km long opened between the Angolan coastal city of Lobito and Luau on the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is the second longest railway built by a Chinese company in Africa, after the Tanzania-Zambia line, running 1,860 km, which opened in 1976.

The Chinese rebuilt what used to be the Banguela Railway; it was built during the Portuguese colonial period, with construction starting in March 1903. It became the shortest way to transport mineral riches from the Congo to Europe. At its peak in 1973, it carried 3.3 million tonnes of cargo, earned freight revenue of US$30 million and had 14,000 employees.

The civil war that broke out after Angola’s independence devastated the line; by 2001, only 34 km remained in operation. After the end of the war, it was the Chinese who rebuilt the line.

The new Lobito-Luau line has 67 stations and cost US$1.83 billion; it is the longest, fastest and most modern line in Angola. Beijing provided US$500 million in interest-free loans towards construction and technical and equipment support.

This is the first step in a route linking the Atlantic and the Pacific, to be extended through Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique.

In East Africa, China is building a 472-km line between the Kenyan capital of Nairobi and the country’s main port of Mombasa that will cut the journey time from 15 hours to four and a half. Construction began in October 2014 and is due to be completed in 2017, at an estimated cost of US$3.8 billion.

The plan is for the line to be part of a new network linking Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan and Uganda.

In January 2015, Samuel Sitta, Transport Minister of Tanzania, said that his government had awarded contracts worth US$9 billion to Chinese firms. One will be to build a line 2,561 km long to connect the port of Dar es Salaam to land-locked neighbours; another will link coal and iron ore mines to the southern port of Mtwara, close to big offshore natural gas discoveries.

In addition, China has established in Africa a high-speed railway research and development centre, to raise the technical standard of railways there.

Crossing the Andes

In May 2015, during a visit to South America, Prime Minister Li Keqiang and Brazilian President Dilma Roussell witnessed the signing of a feasibility study for a 4,400-km railway linking the Atlantic coast of Brazil with the Pacific coast of Peru. It was signed by the two countries and China.

At present, countries in the region mainly rely on the Panama Canal to ship goods. “Latin America has vast land area but lacks enough railways,” said Chen Fengying, a researcher at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations. “It is difficult to raise enough money for such an expensive project from international institutions. China’s involvement is critical. Its costs are much lower than that of Japan and European countries.”

Spain and Portugal, the two powers that colonised South America, never considered such a railway across the continent.

Studies by the Brazilian government show the line would start at Port de Acu in Rio de Janeiro and go through the agricultural heartland of Mato Grosso and reach Porto Velho; then it would enter Peru, cross the Andes and terminate at a major port like Callao, Mollendo or Llo Arica.

China is the number one trading partner of Brazil and Peru. It is a huge importer of Brazilian grains and oilseeds; these materials would be able to travel on the line, shorten the journey time and cut costs en route to China.

But, like the route to Moscow, this line poses the most difficult engineering and technical challenges, especially going through the Andes Mountains between Brazil and Peru. Would the economic benefits justify the enormous cost?

Renato Pavan, an expert on transport integration in Rio de Janeiro, said that the project would cost about US$13 billion and would be unviable.  “About 35 very long tunnels would need to be built, which demands mainly technology. Labour represents only one per cent of the total budget.” Cheap and efficient Chinese labour would be invaluable but not sufficient to overcome all the other challenges.

Entering the European market

For the first time, China has started to build railways in Europe, the place which invented the technology 200 years ago. This has the richest historical significance, a sign of how the centre of the global economy is shifting from west to east.

In December 2014, the Serbian government announced an agreement with China and Hungary to build a 370-km high-speed line between Belgrade and Budapest, due for completion by June 2017; it will cut the journey time from eight to two hours.

During a visit to Belgrade when the announcement was made, Premier Li Keqiang said that China would set up a US$3 billion investment fund for Central and Eastern Europe.

China is also bidding to build Britain’s HS2, a high-speed train that will link the central city of Birmingham with Leeds and Manchester in the north.

This bid is full of symbolism – the world’s newest railway power selling its technology and expertise to the oldest.

It was in September 1825 that the world’s first locomotive-hauled railway opened, over 40 km in the northeast of England. It was a British firm that built the first commercial railway in China, from Zhabei to Baoshan in Shanghai, in July 1876. The Qing government considered it dangerous and disruptive to the spirits that lived underground; it ordered the line dismantled and shipped to Taiwan.

As part of its preparation for the bid for HS2, CSR (China Southern Railway) Corp, China’s largest maker of rolling stock, in May announced a joint research and development centre with three British universities – Imperial College, Southampton and Birmingham. It will be based in Birmingham.

The UK government plans to build HS1, from London to Birmingham, from 2017, to be followed by HS2.

“Western companies like Siemens AG and Alstom of France entered the high-speed rail sector earlier,” said Yu Weiping, vice-president of CNR Corp (China Northern Railway). “But no country in the world has a high-speed network as extensive as China’s.

“I am confident about our technologies and products. In a couple of years, we will have gained more experience in high-speed trains, which means more chances for us to win the project in the UK,” he said.

No mandarin in the Qing government could have imagined such an outcome. (Macao Magazine, by Luo Xunzhi in Beijing, China, photos by Xinhua)

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