Rail & Infrastructure

End of the line

Fengtai reopens as Asia’s biggest train station


Has its boom phase ended?

Fengtai railway station in Beijing was the Chinese capital’s first proper train station, built in the late 1890s during the minor construction boom that followed China’s defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War.

The terminus, which used to offer services to Shanghai and Guangzhou, was closed in 2010. This week, after a 12-year hiatus, it reopened as Asia’s largest railway hub. Some of the old edifice still stands, alongside a gleaming new three-level transport centre connected to the metro, the standard railway network, and the national bullet-train line.

The 32-track station will take some of the traffic load away from Beijing West and other busy hubs in the capital, serving as another departure point for destinations as far away as Guangzhou and Hong Kong.

Fengtai’s delayed reopening highlights the impact that China’s zero-Covid policy is having on the economy. The rebirth is two years late and despite being designed to process 14,000 passengers an hour, the new hub was decidedly quiet in the days following its relaunch.

Images posted to social media showed cavernous waiting halls with only a handful of passengers preparing to catch trains and banks of lengthy escalators carrying a couple of travellers between them.

“There aren’t many people here,” one passenger reported on his Sina Weibo account.

In the first quarter of 2022 China State Railway saw a 15% decrease in passengers on the previous year. Revenues were still up slightly, helped by an increase in freight traffic. “Due to the impact of the epidemic, passenger flow is generally operating at a low level, and passenger revenue and diversified operating income such as hotels and tourism have decreased significantly compared with those before the epidemic,” the China Daily quoted a company spokesperson as saying.

Tens of thousands of kilometres of new railway line has been built over the last decade and the country also boasts more than 37,000km of high-speed track – double the network of 2015. But high-speed rail is three times more costly to build than regular rail connections and these lines are also dedicated to passenger trains, putting their profitability further in question during the travel-restricted times of China’s ‘zero-Covid’ policies.

In March last year the State Council also issued a warning against the construction of new high-speed lines unless there was a clearly-defined case for them in economic terms. It also ordered regional governments to keep railway-associated debt within a “reasonable range”. Within a few days of the new guidelines being released, high-speed projects worth over Rmb130 billion were scrapped in Shandong and Shaanxi provinces.

Some of the recent splurges in railway spending are reminiscent of the period when Fengtai station was first built in Beijing. The military defeat by the Japanese prompted officials at the Qing court to push for modernisation of key sectors of their economy, including transport.

At the time when Fengtai was built there were fewer than 200 kilometres of railway line in China – most of which had been built without the imperial government’s consent. The two initial lines in the capital – a demonstration railway built by the British in 1865 that the Qing court ordered removed, and a tiny track gifted to the Empress Dowager in 1888 to encourage her to allow a wider roll-out of the technology – didn’t get much traction.

The Empress Dowager’s railway ran inside the Forbidden City from her residence to her dining room but she decided that the engine noise was disturbing the palace’s feng shui, so she had a team of eunuchs pull the carriages instead.

By 1911 – the year that China’s last emperor abdicated – the country had added about 9,000 kilometres of railway track.

More recent investment in the railways has been much more expansive. “More than 80% of counties have access to railways and the high-speed railway network covers 93% of cities with a population of more than 500,000,” An Lusheng, deputy director of the National Railway Administration of China, told China Daily this month.

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