The extension of high-speed railways and the possible consequences for urbanisation

High-speed train in Shanghai, Goulard Sébastien

On December 25, 2012 China inaugurated a new high speed railway (HSR) connecting Beijing and Guangzhou.  The journey between the two cities will now take only about eight hours.

In less than ten years, China has built the world’s largest HSR network, and new lines will be opened by 2020. This infrastructure is necessary in order to meet the requirements of China’s economic growth and to better control the development of transportation. High-speed railways will also provide a cleaner alternative to air transportation and motorways.

Modernizing the Chinese railway system has been a great technical and financial challenge, for several reasons:

  • Beijing had to deal with several issues in the process of extending the HSR. First, several fatal accidents occurred. A major accident occurred in Wenzhou in July 2011, caused by the collision of two high-speed trains.
  • After having first imported foreign techniques, China developed her own know-how and is now considering exporting her high-speed trains to foreign countries.
  • Huge amounts of money have been invested in this infrastructure and the programme may never be profitable because of high maintenance costs. This has already been observed in other countries.
  • This public investment and its hidden management have favoured corruption. Several cases of corruption involving high-placed politicians have come to light1.
  • Last of all, considering the high price of tickets, high-speed trains may not prove to be competitive.

High-speed trains and city connections

High speed trains still cannot compete with airlines in terms of travel time for long journeys. Whereas a Beijing to Guangzhou flight takes about two hours, a high speed train covers the same distance in five hours, for roughly the same price. Moreover, because these new railway lines require purpose-built facilities, in most cases new stations have been built outside the city centres, with the result that it takes more time for passengers to travel to the new high-speed train stations.

The consequences of HRS for metropolises and stop-over second tier cities are very important, and may have a strong impact on China’s urban trends. First, high-speed train services may serve to strengthen cooperation at the regional level. With HSR, Suzhou is only thirty minutes away from Shanghai. New employment and migration patterns may emerge as a consequence of the extension of HSR. Medium-size cities surrounding large megalopolises like Shanghai or Beijing may become satellites. Or, on the contrary, these second-tier cities may find themselves empowered as a result of their proximity to global hubs. Research conducted in Europe, where HSR has been developing since the 80’s, shows that the creation of HSR lines gives more opportunities to peripheral, medium-size cities2.

HSR may also encourage the development of second tier cities, especially in Central China.  Fast connections to Beijing and Guangzhou may revitalise cities in the hinterland. With lower real estate prices, companies may find opportunities to make investments.

The main problem for marginal areas is their remoteness; with HSR lines, Central China will be anchored to the major cities and benefit from these new links.

However, in order to fully optimize the HSR infrastructure, there needs to be greater cooperation between Chinese cities, so that no city lags behind. As Brunello, Hung and Bunker have pointed out, connecting facilities should be improved so that HSR stations become hubs offering fast connections to subways, buses and flights. They also stress that HSR stations and their periphery should be priority areas for land development, so that HSR services may be more integrated into the city environment.

Furthermore, HSR projects should not neglect small cities. For financial reasons, HSR networks cannot be extended to every city; however, small and medium size cities should benefit from HSR networks through the creation of shared infrastructures and the expansion of traditional connecting routes (ex:  light trains) to HSR stopovers. HSR infrastructures should be co-managed by regional authorities, so that local transportation needs are better satisfied.

If Beijing succeeds in making HSR stations regional transportation hubs, China’s HSR network may transform urban trends, and reduce regional inequalities. The investments made in building this network are impressive, and the programme may not become financially profitable, but it will surely help address some of the key issues in China’s urbanisation, such as regional disparities and pollution.  It is for this reason that these huge investments are worthwhile.

  1. J. Kaiman (2012, December 26). China opens world’s longest high-speed railway line. The Guardian Retrieved (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/dec/26/china-high-speed-rail-bullet-trains) []
  2. Georges Gac (1990). Effets  socio-économiques du TGV A au Mans: restructuration du centre, conséquence la plus immédiate. OEST []

Sebastien Goulard

Ph.D. in political science (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in social sciences (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in international relations (IRIS, Paris), B.A. (Hons) in international political studies (ESE - Nottingham Trent University)

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