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China rail races as economy slows

Deng Sun, who works on laying a railway track in Inner Mongolia near Russia, isn’t worried about losing his job during the economic crisis, writes Reshma Patil.

world Updated: Jan 19, 2009 13:49 IST
Reshma Patil

Deng Sun, who works on laying a railway track in Inner Mongolia near Russia, isn’t worried about losing his job during the economic crisis. “The rail line is so long, I don’t know where it ends,’’ Deng told

HT

, guarding cartons of instant noodles at the Beijing railway station. The world’s biggest train travel movement began this week ahead of the Chinese New Year holiday.

China is now fighting the slowing economy by expanding its railway network faster than any nation.

In the process, while the great China railroad comes strategically closer to India’s borders, it will also create six million jobs and demand for 20 million tonnes of its own steel as the world’s largest steel producer. “China has long-term plans for lines to the borders in Burma, Central Asia and Pakistan,” Richard Bullock, an Australia-based transport consultant to the World Bank in Beijing, told the Hindustan Times.

“So, India also ought to start thinking about the potential of all-land routes to China,” said Bullock, a former consultant to the Mumbai Rail Vikas Corporation.

This year, when its growth could slump to a 19-year-low, China will spend a record 600 billion yuan (88 billion dollars) on railway infrastructure — double of last year’s investment.

And this year alone, China will begin construction of 5,148 km of new lines — more than twice India’s target for new lines over the next four years.

By 2012, China’s railroad will expand from 79,000 km today to 1,10,000 km. At the same time, India’s denser railway network will skip 2,000 km ahead to reach 65,300 km. “Nobody’s building railways like the Chinese these days,” William C McCahill Jr., vice-chairman of the China-focussed research and consulting firm JL McGregor & Company, told HT in Beijing.

This week, China’s vice-minister of railways Wang Zhiguo said construction would begin for up to 30,000 km of new lines with an investment of over two trillion yuan (292.5 billion dollars) in two years. About 13,000 km of the lines will be for passenger trains hitting over 200-250 km per hour.

Some of the most strategic long-term plans beyond 2012 include linkages for over 2,000 km of tracks in the northwest Xinjiang region that borders remote parts of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Ladakh. According to previous State media reports, these plans include a China-Pakistan railway, a China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway and lines to Mongolia.

“China’s current spurt of railway construction parallels its massive national expressway projects of the last decade, with 50,000 kilometers of highways built since 1998,’’ McCahill pointed out. “And the stupendous 600 billion yuan figure does not include equipment purchases or urban transport.’’

As the Chinese railroad spreads, it’s also getting faster. The world’s longest high-speed rail line is 91 per cent ready with 1,203 km of tracks laid. Around 2012, Beijing and Shanghai will be less than five hours away instead of 11.

But for now, many of China’s holiday travellers will only get a spot to stand on the entire train journey home.

(with inputs from Srinand Jha in Delhi)