Roger Irvine is writing a PhD on China's future at the University of Adelaide. He spent most of 2010 conducting research at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Part two of this series here; part three here.

Few things demonstrate better that something very big is happening in China than its rapidly emerging high-speed rail network.

In 2009, wanting to get a little off the beaten track and explore the prosperous cities of southeast China, I conceived the idea of hopping city to city from Hangzhou to Guangzhou – about 2000km. Buying the latest maps, I noticed few train lines along the indented coastline, but I could see the expressways would facilitate a series of bus trips.

All went according to plan, but a few hours out of Hangzhou I was surprised to see from the bus a huge new construction project for a high-speed railway. The elevated track cut almost straight as an arrow through mountains and across coastal estuaries. Six months later, I learned that more than half of this line, which will soon extend from Shanghai to Shenzhen (near Hong Kong), is operational.

From having no dedicated high-speed track in operation just over two years ago China will, two years from now, have built a staggering 13,000km of track. This is perhaps the most spectacular example of China's constant capacity to surprise with the rapid pace and seemingly unstoppable momentum of its economic growth. But, in the same way that important questions can be raised about the sustainability of China's overall growth, similar questions can be asked about the viability of its ambitious and impressive experiment with high-speed rail.

The extent of China's high-speed rail capability is still little appreciated outside China, mainly due to its very recent construction; but it did not appear suddenly or without considerable preparation. China has long had an interest in high-speed rail, dating from the early 1990s when the State Council commissioned a feasibility study. But China's true entry into the high-speed era did not begin until more than ten years later, with publication of the 2004-2020 Mid and Long-Term Railway Development Plan.

By the end of 2007, over 500 fast trains were in operation, though these shared track with freight services. The first dedicated high-speed line for passengers opened between Beijing and Tianjin just before for the August 2008 Olympics. Having used this line several times, I can testify to its smooth and whisper-quiet operation at speeds up to 350kph. It covers the 120km distance in half an hour (less than many subway commutes in Beijing) and connects seamlessly to the Beijing subway at the stunning new Beijing South railway station.

2008 was a turning point for China's high-speed rail. When the global financial crisis hit, China looked for areas where it could rapidly increase public investment to re-stimulate growth. Rail construction was seen as an obvious candidate. China's total fiscal stimulus package was almost US$600 billion, of which up to 60% was spent on transport, the bulk of it on rail. China's likely total investment in high-speed rail to 2020 had been estimated at about US$300 billion, but recent reports indicate that over US$600 billion will be spent on rail construction during the 2011-2015 Five Year Plan alone.

Given this very high spending, the map of China's rail network looks like the work of a very busy spider. By the end of 2009, the total length of the network had grown to 86,000km, overtaking Russia and second only to the US. In April 2010, China had about 3300km of high-speed line, while Japan was its nearest rival with about 2200km. By September, the Ministry of Railways of the People's Republic of China announced that the length of high-speed track had already doubled to over 7000km.

Future targets are even more striking. The original plan envisaged a 12,000km high-speed passenger network by 2020 (supplemented by 20,000km of mixed traffic lines capable of 200-250kph). In March 2010 the Ministry made the remarkable announcement that it aimed to complete 13,000km of passenger-dedicated high-speed lines by 2012. Not only would this exceed the original 2020 target, but it would be more than the rest of the world combined.

The Ministry said by 2020 there would be at least 16,000 km of passenger-dedicated high-speed rail, enough to stretch from Beijing to London and back. The total rail network by 2020 would be 120,000 km (80% of it electrified); some observers are already speculating that a network of around 150,000km or more is likely by then. John Scales, transport specialist with the World Bank in Beijing, describes China's current effort as the biggest rail expansion the world has ever seen.

The Beijing-Tianjian high-speed line was quickly followed by several others, but more recent headlines were dominated by the opening in December 2009 of the Guangzhou to Wuhan line connecting south and central China in just three hours. Another new line between Beijing and Shanghai, which began construction in 2008, is expected to open this year with a trip time of four or five hours. At US$33 billion, it is described as the most expensive engineering project in China's history, eclipsing even the Three Gorges Dam. 

China's current planning for its high-speed network envisions a 12,000km grid of four north-south and four east-west lines, criss-crossing the country. The potential shrinking of distance for many Chinese commuters is illustrated by the claim that travel time from Beijing to Hong Kong will soon be reduced to less than eight hours; to most other major cities it will be less than two to four hours. Few provincial capital cities would be more than eight hours apart.

Major cities within the three main urban agglomerations of Beijing-Tianjin, the Yangzi River Delta and the Pearl River Delta will be connected by inter-city lines, which will in turn connect within the largest cities to a new proliferation of suburban subway networks. Nor is the relatively underdeveloped western region being neglected. An additional 20,000km of rail is planned. In 2009, work began on a 1776km high-speed line traversing the western region from Lanzhou to Urumqi, which will be the highest high-speed railway in the world.

In part two of this series, I'll look at the infrastructure supporting these massive plans.

Photo by the author.