On July 9 1967, the last mainline steam train left Waterloo Station in London bound for Weymouth on the South Coast. One of its stops was at Basingstoke and WiC had a very junior reporter there, as her grandfather was the stationmaster at the time. Photos from the day show the one-year old looking far from impressed by the magnitude of the occasion.
That was 50 years ago this weekend and since then, the same WiC reporter has spent much of her life travelling on the country’s InterCity 125 trains, which run at 125 miles per hour. But the UK has generally lagged behind mainland Europe in moving to the next level of high-speed rail and only the Eurostar, which links London with Paris and Brussels, currently meets the 250 kilometres per hour (km/h) high-speed standard.
The UK is building a second high-speed line from London to the country’s north. A shortlist of three bidders was released at the end of June and one group comprises Guangshen Railway Company in partnership with Hong Kong’s MTR Corp.
Their presence is testament to the huge strides China’s rail industry has made. The country’s last regular steam train, the Jitong Railway in Inner Mongolia, only stopped running 12 years ago.
The construction of the first high-speed lines began two years later in 2007. As of July this year, China already had a high-speed network covering 23,914km according to the International Union of Railways. This gives the country about 60% of the world’s bullet lines. Europe is second with 8,948km of track and Japan third with 3,041km.
China has a further 12,255km of track either planned or under construction, although other parts of the world are starting to catch up. For example, the rest of Asia, including Japan, has 20,216km in the works, while Europe has 13,046km. The US, well known for its love of the car, remains the notable laggard with just 362km in operation and a further 1,874km planned.
China is also steaming ahead with plans to export its rail technology. CRRC, the country’s monopoly rolling stock maker, signed $15 billion worth of contracts last year and plans to ramp that up with a further $3.8 billion worth of deals agreed in the April-June quarter. Now it can claim its trains are majority-built with Chinese technology as well.
At the end of June, the Chinese rail industry marked a new milestone when two of these new ‘indigenous’ trains left Beijing and Shanghai to make the three-and-a-half hour journey between the two cities. The southbound train had a silver grey body lined with red like a dragon, while the northbound train featured a white body with yellow ribbons, like a phoenix.
Both trains were manufactured by CRRC and the local press said they were “84% Chinese in design and parts”. Officially, this new class of trains are known as Fuxing, which means ‘rejuvenation’ in Chinese.
Their name honours the pledge Xi Jinping made when he became leader in 2012 to oversee “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”. As such, the trains represent a conscious demarcation line with Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, who often talked about creating a harmonious society and unveiled China’s Harmony (Hexie, or “river crab”, which means censorship in Chinese internet slang) high-speed trains in 2007. These were based on technology largely from Japan and Europe.
The Chinese media have hailed the Rejuvenation train as a great technological leap forward. China Daily devoted the front page of its business section to a survey of expats who crowned it as one of the country’s four great 21st century inventions, alongside its four ancient ones (papermaking, printing, gun powder and the compass). “High speed rail bears witness to the great rejuvenation of our nation,” was the most popular social media comment on Sina Finance.
Many domestic pundits have also pointed out how important high-speed rail has been in social and economic development, not least in making more remote areas accessible and creating new urban clusters. They further note the pressure the railways are putting on domestic airlines, particularly on the popular Beijing to Shanghai route.
As one WiC reader says, “China’s high-speed rail system has taken me to places I would have otherwise given up on because of their remoteness or lack of an airport. The trains are fast, reliable, safe and affordable. It’s very easy to book tickets online and board the trains in city centres.”
Southern Weekend says that the Rejuvenation trains are superior to the Harmony model in many ways. Firstly, their average life has been extended from 20 to 30 years. Secondly, their more streamlined shape reduces resistance levels and improves energy efficiency by 17% when the train is travelling at its average speed of 350km/h (its top speed is 400km/h).
The newspaper also highlights that the new carriages are slightly bigger and there is less ear discomfort for passengers when travelling through tunnels. Finally, the Rejuvenation trains are expected to be safer too, with a total of 2,500 diagnostic monitoring points: some 500 more than their predecessor (the 2011 Wenzhou high-speed train crash still remains fresh in many minds).
The Chinese high-speed system also differs from the UK where ‘leaves on the track’ have been known to bring the network to a shuddering halt. By contrast Southern Weekend says the Rejuvenation trains have been tested to make sure their cooling systems can resist blockages from the willow catkin that’s common in spring.
China’s diverse climates mean its bullet trains may need to traverse summer and winter in a single day. As a result, the Fuxing trains have been tested to tolerate temperatures of minus 40 to 40 degrees Celsius.
Wang Yueming, chief researcher at China’s Academy of Railway Sciences tells Southern Weekend that China achieved its goal by taking four types of foreign technology and learning from each one’s strengths and weaknesses. In doing so, the country has been able to pull itself up the technological curve in record time. “We’re now at the stage where we have full autonomy and our R&D is clear of foreign technology platforms,” he says.
Xinhua comes to the same conclusion when it says the Rejuvenation train is an “outstanding example of one who starts late, but develops fast”.
For the international newspapers that covered the launch, the slant differs. The German and French media highlight the threat that CRRC poses to their indigenous companies, Siemens and Alstom. And Munich’s Suddeutsche Zeitung suggests that all is not as it seems. The newspaper says Siemens is still providing the Fuxing trains with technology, just no longer directly selling it to the Chinese trainmakers. “It’s being sold to another Chinese company, which modifies it a bit and then it can be officially stamped as Chinese,” it comments.
Les Echos laments that a tie-up between Siemens and Alstom to rival CRRC’s growing dominance is being thwarted by the “Brussels veto” since it would create a continental monopoly. Instead, Bloomberg reports that Siemens is in the process of creating two joint ventures with Canada’s Bombardier: the former holding a majority stake in a signalling company and the latter in a rolling stock company.
Closer to home, India views the new Chinese trains in humbling terms. One social media respondent on New Delhi TV suggests the nation’s creaking colonial-era network is at “least four to five decades behind China”.
And this week the Chinese unveiled yet another train innovation – though this time not of the high-speed variety. CRRC said it had successfully trialled a new battery-powered train in Inner Mongolia. The train is a prototype which can switch between the power grid and battery power – the purpose of the latter being to enable it to travel in more remote areas where the electric grid doesn’t exist.
A CRRC executive explained to China Daily: “As the train can run solely powered by its battery pack, it will eliminate damage to the local environment caused by the construction of a power grid, leaving the environment and landscape largely intact.”
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