Pic: AP.

Massive building program keys government determination for reform, writes Asia Sentinel’s Steve Wang

On a single day, Dec. 28, 2013, China opened an unprecedented six new high-speed railway links spanning nearly 2,000 kilometers, pushing its total high-speed track to more than 12,000 km.

That has vaulted the country back into the forefront of global high-speed service after a dark period that included the arrest and prosecution of the head of the agency for corruption, and a devastating crash due to faulty equipment in which two trains traveling on the Yongtaiwen railway line collided on a viaduct, killing 40 people and injuring at least 192, 12 of which were severe.

The government then compounded the problems by cutting the investigation short and attempting to bury the cars that had fallen off the viaduct. The crash had a profound impact not just in the development of high-speed rail but, along with a rash of scandals such as the adulteration of baby formula, on public confidence in the government itself, spurring Beijing to spare no effort in putting the system right.

The opening of the new lines is thus an indication that rail service is back as a vital component of the country’s economic transformation. The resurgence is also emblematic of President Xi Jinping’s determination to clean out corruption. Former Minister of Railways Czar Liu Zhijun was sentenced to death in April with a two-year reprieve for allegedly accepting the equivalent of US$250 million in bribes. It was one of the highest-profile corruption cases in years, eclipsed only by the conviction and life sentence for former Chongqing boss and politburo member Bo Xilai.

The unprecedented lengthening of the grid on a single day is not just a fact, but a major statement by the newly-christened China Railway Corporation. In August 2013, the State Council issued a document to “reform the investment and financing system of railways and to accelerate railway construction.” Following that, the CRC increased the number of new projects for 2013 to 47 from 38. According to the company’s latest information, another 12,000 km of high-speed rail is under construction. China is targeting 19,000 km in operation by 2015.

The Ministry of Railway or its successor, the China Railway Corporation, have set an extremely aggressive list of indicators of 2015 targets. For the past three years, the indicators have not moved significantly. Thus, the momentum for the next two years has to be much quicker if China wants to achieve the targets. In particular, passenger throughput is expected to almost double by 2015 from now. China also has to commence operation of an additional 10,000 kilometers per year when the total length of railways in operation only averaged less than 3,000 km annual construction for the past three years.

The high-speed system is not only extensive and growing, it is inexpensive for its users. A second-class seat on the newest bullet train service, stretching 513 km from the southern capital city of Shenzhen to Xiamen, a major hub in Fujian, costs just RMB150.5, the equivalent of US$25. That distance is farther than from New York to Montreal at a fraction of the RMB800 cost of a flight. The high-speed journey will be a scenic 3-hour, 41 minute skip, down from the agonizing 13-hour ordeal on regular trains.

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