Shrinking Distance

15 April 2013

New railway will make Macao access easier for millions

By Mark O Neill

At the end of December there will open the first passenger railway along the southern coast of the Pearl River, cutting the journey time from Guangzhou to Zhuhai to just 46 minutes. The terminus is at Gongbei, next to the border with Macao, making travel simpler for millions of mainlanders.

The railway, with a total length of 177 kilometres, realises one part of the dream of Dr Sun Yat-sen 90 years ago in his “International Development of China”, in which he proposed construction of 160,000 km of railroad across the country. His native place in Zhongshan is close to the new line.

The railway, plus a freight link to Zhuhai’s port due to open in 2013, mean that, for the first time in history, the cities of the southern delta are connected by rail and to the national network. The two lines will have enormous significance in developing the economy and the property market of the region.

It is part of a plan of the Guangdong provincial government to build a network  that makes every major city in the delta within one hour of the capital Guangzhou by rail. The aim is to spread the wealth of the province; people can live in cities on the new line and commute every day to Guangzhou to work. Property prices in these cities will rise as a result.

Among the greatest beneficiaries will be the casinos, hotels and tourist industry of Macao. The new line means that visitors from all over China can board the train in Guangzhou South station and reach the border with Macao in less than one hour. From the station, they can walk to the frontier crossing.

Under construction is a 38.5-km extension from Gongbei to the city’s airport that will pass through the island of Hengqin. There will be a stop close to the island of Taipa where many of the largest casinos are located. A link between the line and Macao’s new light rail system is being considered.

Linking cities

The total length of the new line is 177 kilometres, of which 116 is between Guangzhou South station and Zhuhai.  There are in addition branch lines from Xiaolan station to Xinhui, 26 km, and from Zhuhai to Zhuhai airport. It will have a maximum speed of 200 km per hour.

It passes through the main cities of the southern Pearl River Delta, including Foshan, Shunde, Jiangmen and Zhongshan. It has a total of 27 stations. Passengers will have the choice of 46 minutes non-stop from the two termini or 76 minutes with stops at each station. The current journey time by bus is about 90 minutes from Gongbei to Panyu.

The line between Guangzhou South and Zhuhai North opened on January 7, 2011, with a journey time of 41 minutes. Guangzhou South is in Panyu, a suburb of the city. Passengers there can catch high-speed trains to Shenzhen, Hong Kong, Wuhan and Guizhou. To reach other parts of Guangzhou, they must take a subway.

Guangzhou South is one of three railway stations in the city.

Extended route

The first feasibility study was completed in the spring of 2004 and the line was included as a major project for Zhuhai city in 2005. On July 14, 2004, the Ministry of Railways and Guangdong provincial government agreed to set up the Guangdong Pearl River Urban Light Rail Transport Company, owned 50-50 by the two sides. It is responsible for the construction and operation of the line.

The State Council approved the project on March 16, 2005. The route of the line was agreed and construction work began on December 18, 2005. Of the line, 92.25 per cent is bridges.

The first deadline was 2010, to be finished in time for the Guangzhou Asian Games, but this was missed.

In October 2011, the Guangdong government and the Ministry of Railways approved an extension of 38.5 km from the Gongbei terminus to the city’s airport, at a cost of 13.15 billion yuan. It will have seven stations, including one in Hengqin that is planned to link with the light rail system of Macao; this may be an underwater spur line.

It includes a distance of 15.7 km between the stations of Hengqin and Sanzao, of which seven kilometres is the Jinqiao bridge. This extension is due to be completed in 2013. The train will run at 160 km per hour, with a capacity of 24,000 an hour to the airport, in 25 minutes. The current travelling time from central Zhuhai to the airport is one hour.

Line incomplete

In the first 18 months of operation, the line carried 27 million passengers. The average daily passenger load was 60,000. It uses CRH 1 trains, the same design as high-speed trains all over China: comfortable, well-lit and spacious, with excellent service.

The main beneficiaries are the residents of Foshan, Jiangmen and Zhongshan,  who are able to visit Guangzhou more quickly and conveniently than they could before.

But it has not brought so much benefit to the citizens of Zhuhai, because the Zhuhai North station is situated in the far north of the city. This means a car or bus journey of 30 minutes – or more if the traffic is bad – from the urban area to the station.

Zeng Zhi, a CPPCC member of Zhuhai, said the delay had gone on too long and caused a lot of inconvenience. “It was a huge investment and much is going to waste. “When I go on a business trip, I like to take the high-speed train, with connections at Guangzhou South. But going to Zhuhai North adds 30 minutes to the journey.”

Construction work on the Gongbei station began in 2009 but was delayed due to problems acquiring the land and relocating the people living on it. Then the builder, a construction firm under the Railway Ministry, had financial problems; it was not paid 90 million yuan that it was owed. This caused further delays.

Another factor was a collision in July 2011 between two trains on a viaduct in Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, which left 40 people dead and 192 injured, 12 seriously. It was the first fatal crash involving high-speed rail in China and led to a wide-ranging two-month railway safety review.

As a result of these delays, many Zhuhai people choose not to use the line and continue to take high-speed buses that run from the city centre every 15 minutes.

“The advantage of the bus is that it takes you into central Guangzhou,” said Yang Shuling, a private businessman who often goes there for work. “The train takes you to Guangzhou South, which is in Panyu, a suburb and not the city centre. From there, you have to take the metro, a bus or a taxi.

“When the new line opens from Gongbei, more people will take it, because of the speed and convenience. But there will still be customers for the buses. The train fare is reasonable,” he said. The fare from Guangzhou to Zhuhai North is 44 yuan for first class, 36 for economy class and 22 for students.

Spreading the wealth

At the start of the reform and open-door policy, China declared four special economic zones (SEZs); one was Shenzhen next to Hong Kong and one was Zhuhai next to Macao.

In the 30 years since then, Shenzhen has become the fourth richest city in China, with a population of 10 million and a GDP last year of 1.1 trillion yuan. Zhuhai, on the other hand, has a population of 1.5 million and a GDP last year of 140 billion yuan.

One of the main reasons for this disparity is the fact that Shenzhen sat on the rail line between Hong Kong and Guangzhou, while Zhuhai had no railway. Investors flocked to Shenzhen and other cities along the line; it – and an excellent road network — enabled them to bring in raw materials and export the finished product.

By building the passenger and freight lines to Zhuhai, the Guangdong government hopes to narrow this gap and bring more prosperity to the southern side of the Pearl River Delta. The two lines will make the cities along the route more attractive to investors and tourists and give their residents easier access to the national rail network.

Carrying freight

The conventional railway is under construction between Guangzhou and Zhuhai and will mainly carry freight.

It will run 186 km from Jiangcun in Guangzhou to Gaolan port in Zhuhai, passing through Foshan and Jiangmen. It will have 11 stations and travel at 120 km an hour. It involves drilling a tunnel 9,185 metres long in Jiangmen.

The State Development and Planning Commission first approved the project in 1993 and construction began in 1997, with a budget of 13.16 billion yuan and completion within four years. But it stopped within 18 months due to lack of money. Construction resumed in September 2007, with the budget increased to 14.8 billion; it is due for completion in 2013.

Mainly for freight, it will also have the ability to carry passengers.

Gaolan is the deep-water port of Zhuhai. It handles more than seven million tonnes of cargo a year. In December 2011, the port and Hutchison Whampoa began construction of two 50,000-tonne container berths. “We are looking at accelerating Gaolan Port’s development with the introduction of more international line-haul services there,” said Canning Fok, group managing director of HW.

The berths are part of the Gaolan Port Economic Development Zone, which had an output of 20.6 billion yuan in 2011. Among the biggest investors is BP which is building the third of three purified terephthalic (PTA) plants in the zone; BP has a 15 per cent share of the global PTA market.

The third plant will be the largest single PTA factory in the world; the three will have an annual output of 23 billion yuan.

The provincial government hopes the new rail line will attract many investors to the southern bank of the Pearl River and stimulate the growth of Gaolan port.