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Building China's Impressive High-Speed Rail

By Lu Dongfu Source: English Edition of Qiushi Journal Updated: 2021-11-15

On July 22, 2021, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Nyingchi (Linzhi) Train Station to inspect the overall plans for the Sichuan-Xizang railway as well as construction of the section between Lhasa and Nyingchi. Afterward, he took a special train to check out the railway's construction and better understand issues related to the project. 

China's high-speed rail (HSR) is testament to its soaring national strength, and its development bears the expectations of President Xi and the rest of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC). 

On January 19, 2021, President Xi took the Beijing-Zhangjiakou HSR train and stopped at Taizicheng in Hebei Province to inspect the city's new station. During his visit, President Xi explained that HSR is a prime example of China's independent innovation, of developing something from nothing, and of progressing from importing and assimilating others' technology, to innovating, and eventually to achieving independent innovation. He added that China now leads the world in HSR, and it should learn from that experience and continue to work tirelessly to achieve greater development during the 14th Five-Year Plan period (2021-2025). 

I. China has gained a glowing reputation for its high-quality development of HSR 

HSR is an important indicator of the modernization of a country's transportation and a significant reflection of its level of industrialization. Despite developing HSR more than four decades later than some developed countries, thanks to the CPC's leadership and the strengths of its system that efficiently pools national resources to achieve extraordinary feats, and the tireless efforts of several generations of railway workers, China has made historic progress in HSR, from trailing other countries, to keeping pace with the competition, and to leading the world. 

China has built the world's largest and most modern HSR network. 

Since the Beijing-Tianjin intercity railway— China's first train line with a design speed of 350 km/h—was completed in 2008, dozens of HSR routes have been completed and gone into service. After the 18th CPC National Congress in 2012 in particular, the development of HSR moved onto fast track, with average annual construction of 3,500 km of railway. Both the speed and quality of this construction have received global acclaim.


A Fuxing train powered by both internal combustion and electrical engines speeds along the Lhasa-Nyingchi Railway. This rail line, launched into operation on June 25, 2021, is the first electrified railway in the Xizang Autonomous Region. The arrival of Fuxing-model trains in the region finally connected southeastern Xizang to the rail network, and marked a milestone as these trains are now in operation across all of China's 31 provincial-level administrative divisions. PHOTO PROVIDED BY THE PUBLICITY DEPARTMENT OF THE CHINA STATE RAILWAY GROUP 

— China has the longest operational HSR network in the world. 

At the end of 2020, China had 37,900 km of operational HSR, accounting for 69% of the world's total. This included 13,700 km (36% of China's total) of railways with a maximum operating speed of 300-350 km/h, and 24,200 km (64%) with a maximum operating speed of 200-250 km/h. 

— China has the fastest commercial railways in the world. 

China's Fuxing trains operate at a speed of 350 km/h on 1,910 km of HSR lines, including the Beijing-Shanghai, Beijing-Tianjin, Beijing-Zhangjiakou, and Chengdu-Chongqing routes. China is the only country in the world with commercially operated HSR trains that travel at 350 km/h. It has set the global benchmark for commercial HSR and demonstrated its speed capabilities to the world. 

— China has the most comprehensive HSR network in the world. 

The country's HSR network stretches from northeast forests and snowy plains to the Yangtze River Delta in the south, from the northwest Gobi Desert to the eastern coast of the East China Sea, traversing rivers and mountains to reach every corner of the country. The HSR system was originally designed along four major north-south routes and four major east-west routes, but is being expanded to create a dense network of routes based around eight major north-south routes and eight major east-west routes. The system already covers 92% of Chinese cities each with a population of more than half a million.


Xiong'an Station on the Beijing-Xiong'an Intercity Railway. The Beijing-Xiong'an Intercity Railway is a major transportation artery for keeping the Xiong'an New Area closely connected to key cities in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region, making it easy for people to travel to and from the area, accelerating the clustering of industries, and promoting regional economic coordination. PHOTO PROVIDED BY THE PUBLICITY DEPARTMENT OF THE CHINA STATE RAILWAY GROUP 

China has built a world-leading HSR system with independent intellectual property. 

China has a complete HSR technology system consisting of three main areas: engineering construction, equipment manufacturing, and operations management. Its HSR technology is at the global forefront, and has become a world leader in a number of fields, making the significant transition from straggler to pacesetter. 

— Engineering construction 

Due to China's complex and diverse terrain and climate, construction of the HSR network has required overcoming some of the world's most difficult technical challenges, including in the areas of railway foundations, tracks, long and large bridges and tunnels, mass transit stations, and system integration. With the focus on original innovations, China has developed a complete set of technologies for the construction of HSR under varied geological and climatic conditions. These achievements include the construction of the Shanghai-Sutong Yangtze River Bridge and the Wufengshan Yangtze River Bridge, both of which have main spans exceeding 1 km; six world-class HSR bridges each with a span exceeding 500m, including the Tianxingzhou Yangtze River Bridge in Wuhan; more than 100 HSR tunnels over 10 km in length, including the Shiziyang Tunnel on the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong express rail link and the Qinling tunnels on the Xi'an-Chengdu HSR route; and many modern HSR hub stations, including Beijing South, Shanghai Hongqiao, and Guangzhou South. In recognition of these feats, the Beijing-Shanghai HSR won the National Award for the Advancement of Science and Technology, and several HSR bridges and tunnels have won the industry's highest awards issued by the International Tunnel and Underground Space Association (ITA-AITES) and the International Bridge Conference (IBC). 

— HSR technology and equipment 

Following the introduction of advanced technology from abroad, China jointly designed and built the Hexie bullet (also known as electric multiple unit (EMU)) train with its partners. Then, after persevering with independent innovation, China broke through technical bottlenecks to develop the world-class Fuxing Chinese Standardized EMU, featuring completely independent intellectual property, which includes the Fuxing Intelligent EMU model, the world's first train capable of automatic operation at 350 km/h. China has developed a range of Fuxing train products at different speed grades in the range of 160-350 km/h, which can be adapted to operate in harsh environments, such as plateaus, extremely-cold areas, high winds, and sandy conditions. On June 25 this year, when the Lhasa-Nyingchi Railway opened, a Fuxing Plateau dual-source power-centralized EMU drove its way into Xizang and reached its destination of Lhasa, completing the Fuxing train's historic mission to reach and connect all 31 of China's provinces (and autonomous regions and municipalities). To meet the unique requirements of HSR, China independently developed the CTCS-3 control system and built a dispatch control system using SCADA, giving the network a powerful, safe, and reliable central nervous system and power supply system. Other advanced technologies, such as the BeiDou Navigation Satellite System, 5G, and big data, have been successfully applied to HSR. 

— Operations management 

China has mastered the full gamut of HSR operations management technologies despite the complexity of the rail network. It has created scheduling technology for high-density, cross-line (running on HSR and conventional rail) routes operating at different speeds. The system has overcome the difficulties posed by operating various EMUs and speed classes over long distances and across line types to offer high-density public transportation on busy high-speed main lines and intercity railways, with departure intervals of just 4-5 minutes at peak times. 

— Safe production 

Safety has been boosted with the help of science and technology. The Fuxing Intelligent EMU has more than 2,700 monitored points, and features in-transit self-awareness, health management, and fault diagnosis technologies, which provide comprehensive real-time monitoring of train operations. China has also developed online monitoring systems for HSR equipment, including high-speed inspection vehicles and on-track detection and sensing devices, which use big data analysis to precisely control HSR infrastructure. Natural disasters and public security risks are mitigated thanks to the development of natural disaster (including wind, rain, and snow) monitoring equipment as well as foreign object intrusion and earthquake monitoring and early warning systems. 

China has built a world-class HSR brand. 

With the focus on realizing people's desire for a better life and reforming the supply structure of transportation in China, a passenger transportation quality improvement plan and Fuxing brand strategy have been implemented to improve the all-round experience and operations of HSR. As a result, China's HSR system meets or surpasses world-leading standards on safety, efficiency, comfort, convenience, and cost. 

— Safety 

China's HSR puts safety first and focuses on quality in every aspect of construction and operations management. It implements a program of "creating solid foundations, meeting standards, and raising quality and efficiency," as well as a three-pronged security system consisting of human, material, and technological defenses, which enables comprehensive management of the external security environment of HSR and ensures the safety and reliability of the network. Between 2008 and 2020, the average accident rate per 100 km on China's HSR was 82% lower than on overseas HSR. As of the end of June 2021, China's HSR system had safely travelled 9.28 billion km, equivalent to 232,000 laps around the Earth, and safely transported 14.12 billion passengers, distinguishing it as the safest HSR system in the world. 

— Efficiency 

As part of the operational efficiency of the HSR network, train timetables are dynamically altered each day of the year to optimize HSR supply, allowing the number of trains operating to grow and their coverage to expand. At present, the national railways operate an average of more than 7,400 HSR trains per day, accounting for 77% of all passenger trains. A report issued by the World Bank in 2019 stated that passenger density on China's HSR services is about twice the density of HSR in Europe. 

— Comfort 

China's HSR lines are constructed from ballastless track, with heavy-duty superlong steel rails and seamless tracks, for an extremely smooth ride. The Fuxing EMU features high-speed bogie with excellent damping performance, ensuring low vehicle vibration acceleration, amplitude, and noise, and meeting the highest international standards for onboard stability. Technical issues related to train aerodynamics, wheel-rail contact, and train airtightness have been addressed to improve safety and comfort when trains enter and exit tunnels and pass each other at high speed. The on-board air conditioning system provides fresh air at a rate of 16 m3 per person per hour, which is 7%-60% higher than the HSR trains of other countries. The carriages are wide and spacious, with a cross-sectional area of 11.2 m2, which is 14.3% larger than other countries, offering passengers a more comfortable travel environment. 

— Convenience 

China has built the world's largest online railway ticketing system (known as 12306), which has the capacity to sell up to 20 million tickets each day. Currently, 86.2% of tickets are sold online, with the single-day record at 90%. The launch of the 12306 platform has facilitated e-ticketing, mobile payments, online seat selection, entry into stations using facial recognition, and pre-order meal services. Traditional services, such as paper ticketing and station ticket sales windows, have also been retained for the sake of the elderly and non-Internet users, all of which has significantly improved the quality of service on China's railways. 

— Cost 

The average cost of an HSR fare in China is about a third to a quarter of the price of a fare in other countries. China's total HSR fare revenue reached 1.1 trillion yuan during the 13th Five-Year Plan period (2016-2020), and HSR's share of railway passenger revenue increased from 53% in 2015 to 78% in 2020. The World Bank's 2019 report stated that even though many Chinese HSR lines have a high proportion of their route on viaducts or in tunnels, the Chinese network has been built at only two-thirds the average cost in other countries, and the economic rate of return is positive, giving reason to be optimistic about the long-term economic viability of the major trunk railways. 

II. The significant contribution of HSR to China's socioeconomic development 

HSR is a major achievement in modern railway construction. It is a safe, comfortable, and convenient mode of public transport that gives people a stronger sense of fulfillment, happiness, and security. It has also led to positive changes in the urban structure, population distribution, and the economic landscape and contributed to the country's modernization process. 

HSR has resolved long-standing bottlenecks in railway transportation, facilitating smooth flows of people and goods. 

China's rapid development of HSR has significantly increased the passenger capacity of its railways, making day-to-day travel more convenient and fundamentally solving the severe capacity shortfalls previously experienced during peak periods. Between 2008, when HSR services were launched in China, and 2019, the number of average daily passenger journeys increased from 350,000 to 6.5 million, an average annual growth of 30.3%. In 2020, HSR passenger journeys accounted for 25.2% of all passenger journeys across all modes of transportation, an increase of 20.4 percentage points since 2012. Taking HSR has genuinely become an enjoyable way to travel that is accessible to the majority of people in China. 

The rapid development of HSR has also created considerable rail freight capacity. The four major north-south HSR routes and four major east-west routes, in particular, have significantly alleviated passenger and freight congestion on China's busiest routes and optimized the transportation structure, reducing logistics costs. In 2020, China's national rail freight volume was 3.58 billion tons, an increase of 920 million tons, or 35.1%, over 2016. Rail freight's share of total freight by all modes of transport increased from 7.6% in 2016 to 9.6% in 2020. 

HSR has optimized and upgraded the industrial structure, helping to transform China's economic growth model. 

Developing HSR involves many technologies, sectors, and industries. It requires huge investment in construction and a long industry chain, which can have a strong influence in optimizing and upgrading a country's industrial structure. HSR construction in China has not only optimized the engineering construction and equipment manufacturing industries, it has also driven the clustered development of affiliated industries. It has increased demand for basic building materials, such as steel and cement, as well as driven the development of high-end industries such as machinery, metallurgy, construction, rubber, synthetic materials, electric power, information, computing, and precision instruments. It is estimated that every 100 million yuan invested in China's HSR creates an output value of over 1 billion yuan and 600 jobs in upstream and downstream industries, such as construction, metallurgy, and manufacturing. The Fuxing EMU is a prime example of a modern high-tech product. It is made from more than 100,000 parts and contains 260 individual technical systems, with components designed and manufactured by over 100 core companies and over 500 closely associated companies across more than 20 of China's provinces and municipalities. As a result, HSR equipment manufacturing has become a strategic emerging industry in which China possesses international competitive advantages across the entire industry chain. 

Following the rapid development of HSR in China, CRRC, a major railway equipment manufacturing company, and railway construction contractors such as China Railway Group and China Railway Construction Corporation, have made their way into the list of Fortune Global 500 companies. HSR has also had a positive impact on China's capital market. There are currently more than 40 HSR-related companies listed on stock markets in China, with a combined market value of over 1.1 trillion yuan. During the 13th Five-Year Plan period, a total of 1.01 trillion yuan of bonds and 1.92 trillion yuan of bank loans were issued for railway construction, which played a positive role in the steady and healthy development of China's stock and bond markets. 

HSR has advanced coordinated regional economic development and lent fresh impetus to fostering a new development dynamic and achieving healthy and sustained economic development. 

China has a vast territory and deep hinterland, with stark regional disparities in terms of resources and socioeconomic development. Once the construction of the HSR network is complete, major cities within 500 km will be accessible by public transport within 1-2 hours; large cities around 1,000 km away will be accessible in about 4 hours, making it possible to complete a round trip in one day; and large cities around 2,000 km away will be reached in just 8 hours, so people will be able to leave in the morning and arrive by evening. This will play a significant role in sustained and healthy economic development as well as in bringing about a new development dynamic.

Construction of the HSR network has greatly strengthened the radial effect and leading role of central cities over their surrounding areas and significantly expanded metropolitan areas. It has aided the implementation of major urban strategies, including the coordinated development of the BeijingTianjin-Hebei Region, construction of the Xiong'an New Area, integrated development of the Yangtze River Delta, development of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area, and construction of the ChengduChongqing Economic Circle. HSR has created links between cities and areas along routes and promoted the optimal allocation and clustered development of factors of production and consumption between them. This has also aided the implementation of major regional strategies, such as the development of the Yangtze River Economic Belt and the ecological protection and high-quality development of the Yellow River Basin. 

The HSR network has tightened collaboration in regional divisions of labor, promoted the transfer of industries from economically developed areas to inland and economically underdeveloped areas, and created a regional economic layout featuring complementary advantages and high-quality development. It has boosted the development of the western region, the rejuvenation of northeast China, the rise of central China, and the spearhead development of the eastern region. Since the 18th CPC National Congress in 2012, 22,000 km of HSR has been built in old revolutionary base areas, areas with large ethnic minority populations, border areas, and poverty-alleviation areas, accounting for 80% of total national HSR construction during that period, which has connected more than 198 counties to the HSR system and addressed omissions in the infrastructure network. This has laid the foundations for implementing the rural revitalization strategy and integrating impoverished areas into the country's modernization process.


An attendant interacts with passengers on a high-speed train. A whole raft of services including electronic tickets, online meal ordering, quiet carriages, and smart interfaces have been launched on China's high-speed rail network, providing passengers with a safe, comfortable, and convenient travel experience. PHOTO PROVIDED BY THE PUBLICITY DEPARTMENT OF THE CHINA STATE RAILWAY GROUP 

HSR exemplifies the green and low-carbon credentials of railways and contributes significantly to environmental conservation and building a beautiful China. 

The energy consumption per 100 passenger-kilometers of HSR is just 18% that of airplanes and 50% of buses. HSR also uses 50% less land compared to a four-lane highway, and just 10% the area of land to transport the same volume of passengers and freight. The carbon dioxide emissions of HSR amount to only 6% those of airplanes and 11% of cars. The increased passenger turnover of HSR between 2012 and 2019 is estimated to have led to a 23.2-million-ton reduction in carbon dioxide emissions compared to the same passenger turnover on roads. Moreover, HSR has increased China's operational rail freight and optimized its transportation structure, thereby boosting the development of and shift to more environmentally friendly modes of transport. 

The whole of China's HSR system uses electric technology, so the construction of HSR has significantly bolstered the electrification rate of its railways. The national railway electrification rate now stands at 74.9%, and national railway fuel consumption has dropped from 5.83 million tons at its peak in 1985 to 2.31 million tons, a decline of 60%, the equivalent of reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 12.56 million tons per year. 

HSR has enhanced the global reputation of China's railways and boosted China's opening up and Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). 

China has taken HSR to a new level, advancing HSR technology and raising international standards, which has had a positive global impact and promoted cooperation between China and countries seeking to construct their own system or manufacture HSR equipment. The Jakarta-Bandung HSR project in Indonesia—a landmark BRI project—is a prime example of smooth progress in this area. 

Taking on overseas projects has strongly promoted China's railway standards abroad. Of the 40 standardization items currently being considered by the Technical Committee for Railway Applications of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO/TC 269 Railway Applications), China is presiding over 9 and participating in 31; of the 99 standardization items being looked at by the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), China is presiding over 13 and participating in 48; and of the 606 items under review by the International Union of Railways (UIC), China is presiding over 26 and participating in 21, including HSR design and implementation standards, and the latter have already been released worldwide. In addition, China has signed standardization and mutual recognition agreements with 21 Belt and Road countries, including Russia, which has significantly increased the influence of China's railway standards. 

With the rapid development of China's HSR and major breakthroughs in taking its railway technology global, the country's standing within the world's railway industry is on the rise. Having Chinese nationals in the positions of chairperson of the UIC AsiaPacific Regional Assembly, chairperson of the IEC, and chairperson of ISO/TC 269 Railway Applications has also greatly amplified China's voice in international organizations. 

III. Valuable experience in developing HSR 

The successful development of HSR in China has been hailed around the world. It stands as testament to the political strength of the CPC's leadership and the institutional strength of socialism with Chinese characteristics. Meanwhile it is also a tangible achievement of China's system for efficiently pooling national resources. 

Continuing support for the CPC's leadership has provided a political guarantee for historic achievements in HSR development. 

Under the centralized and unified leadership of the CPC Central Committee, the development of HSR in China has adhered to the people-centered philosophy, embodied people's desire for a better life, and considered the diverse needs of economically developed areas, old revolutionary base areas, areas with large ethnic minority populations, border areas, and areas targeted by poverty alleviation efforts to ensure that HSR benefits all China's citizens. Establishing a national integrated and coordinated HSR network has allowed it to overcome industrial and regional limitations, integrated it with major national strategies, tied its development to that of related industries, and ensured it serves regional development needs. It has also guaranteed stability and continuity in HSR planning and made HSR development and socioeconomic development mutually reinforcing and beneficial. 

The ability to pool national resources behind major undertakings has resulted in an immense concerted effort to build the world's most sophisticated HSR network. 

HSR requires huge investment and groundbreaking engineering, and that presents immense challenges. The key to China rapidly building a national HSR network consisting of four north-south routes and four eastwest routes, which will soon be extended to eight in both directions, has been making the best use of Chinese socialism's "magic weapon," which is the ability to pool national resources behind major undertakings. In developing HSR, from the central to the local, from inside the tracks to outside, and in every link of the industry's chain of innovation, from research, innovation, and production to industrial applications, from planning and design, engineering construction, and equipment manufacturing to operations management, there has been firm adherence to market economic principles, along with an insistence on subordinating the needs of the few to those of the many, consideration of both national and local interests, close coordination and cooperation, and an immense concerted effort to develop HSR. Relevant state departments have staunchly supported the construction of HSR in such areas as planning and construction, industry development, feasibility studies, environmental protection, and investment and financing. Local Party committees and governments, meanwhile, have led the way in procuring construction land, building supporting facilities, and achieving the integrated development of stations and their cities, including solving complex land acquisition, demolition, and resettlement issues and ensuring the rational, orderly, safe, and high-quality construction of HSR on an enormous scale. 

Independent development and open cooperation have led to major, world-leading advancements in HSR technology. 

With globalization, informatization, and networking developing in-depth, and openness and mobility of factors of innovation increasing, China's HSR has combined "bringing in" with "going out," integrated independent and collaborative innovation, and utilized international and domestic markets and resources. It has taken full advantage of its latecomer status by importing, assimilating, and re-innovating the world's most advanced HSR technologies and studying leading international ideas and innovations, which have been incorporated into China's HSR system and greatly accelerated the pace at which it has been able to catch up with, and then overtake, the world's leading HSR countries. In addition, the HSR network has been firmly based on China's own national circumstances and railway conditions and on a belief in being self-reliant in science and technology and conducting independent innovation. China has proceeded from what best suits its needs when importing foreign technologies and tirelessly strengthened technical research in key areas, thereby forming a complete theoretical and practical HSR innovation chain and system of technical standards. This has led China to become a leader in innovation and given it the initiative in the development of HSR, and it is constantly bolstering and elevating China's status as the world leader of HSR technology. 

Unified planning and construction underpin the development of HSR. 

In line with the arrangements of the CPC Central Committee, China's railway industry has consistently advocated unified development, planning, and standards and pursued an integrated national railway network and centralized and unified transportation management system. As an important entity involved in the construction and operation of China's railways, China State Railway Group has harnessed its role as a leading enterprise in railway technology innovation to coordinate and integrate HSR research, design, construction, equipment manufacturing, and operations management. We organically integrate the resources of enterprises, universities, research institutes and end-users, promote collaborative and integrated innovation, and bring together various forces in the railway industry to form a superior composite force for promoting HSR innovation. We are capitalizing upon the platform provided by launching such a large market and using our abundant technical resources and experience in HSR construction and operation to guide and support innovations in HSR technology and promote their direct practical applications. We advocate correct technical methods; seek to achieve overall coordination and professional integration of technical policies, standards, platforms, and layouts; promote continuity in HSR planning, construction, and operations; and place equal emphasis on safety, quality, efficiency, and benefits. This ensures that successful experiences in HSR construction and operation are quickly rolled out across the country to achieve scaled industrial benefits and improve the efficiency and quality of HSR in China. 

Coordinated training of technical professionals and managers has provided the human resources and intellectual support needed to develop and construct HSR. 

The vast ranks of railway workers have a revolutionary tradition and a strong history of obeying and following the Party. They are an impressive workforce capable of enduring great hardships, working tirelessly, and dedicating themselves to their task. In response to urgent calls for personnel to rapidly develop HSR in China, China State Railway Group took effective steps to boost the political, ideological, educational, and professional skills of its managers and employees, thereby bringing up technical, managerial, and highly skilled personnel equipped with advanced concepts, knowledge of high-tech, an ethos of innovation, and a commitment to developing the HSR industry in China. Despite having to conduct maintenance and repairs at all times of the day in all types of weather, rail managers and workers firmly believe that the people are the masters of the country, and they are totally dedicated to the HSR cause. From among their ranks, there have emerged many model workers who love and are devoted to their jobs, strive to be the best, battle against adversity, courageously innovate, and care little for fame and fortune, as well as many railway technicians who are diligent, dedicated, self-improving, meticulous, and in pursuit of excellence. 

Lu Dongfu is Chairman of the Board and Secretary of the CPC Leadership Group of China State Railway Group. 

(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No. 15, 2021)