Full throttle on high-speed rail

Trains already glide across China at 350kph and more high-speed lines are in the works, including the showpiece route on which passengers will fly between Beijing and Shanghai at up to 380kph.

The high-speed train sways gently as it pulls out of the Chinese capital Beijing and picks up speed as it heads to Tianjin. Passengers are settled in their airline-style seats, some sipping from the free bottles of Tibet Spring mineral water, as the train heads south-east. The interior is spotless and the seats offer plenty of room. But this Sunday evening service is busy with people returning home after a weekend in the capital, so many have to stand. Some read books and magazines as the red digital display shows that the sleek train with the ungainly name CRH3, for China Railway High-Speed 3, has reached a speed of 325kph.

"It's very fast and very comfortable," says Zheng Meng Zhou, 24, an oil rig worker travelling on to the coastal town of Tanggu after a weekend in Beijing. "From Beijing to Tianjin it took about one hour 15 minutes [before], but now it's very fast. It's very safe and very steady." Almost exactly 30 minutes after setting off from Beijing South Railway Station, the white train completes its 117km journey and comes to a halt in the city known as the Shanghai of the North for its European architecture.

China already has 3,676km of railway line capable of taking trains at speeds of up to 350kph, and a further 2,876km that can be used by trains running at speeds of at least 200kph to 250kph. Although some trains already in operation can travel as fast as 350kph and maintain average speeds of 310kph, things are set to get even faster. The flagship high-speed line between the capital Beijing and the booming financial centre of Shanghai is due to open next year with trains that will hurtle along at 380kph.

Last year the country invested 600 billion yuan (Dh322.6bn) on railway construction and the government has indicated spending will be even greater this year. As a result, between now and the end of 2012, 26,000km of railways are due to be built, of which more than 9,000km will be for high-speed trains. The cost of these new lines has been put at 900bn yuan. By 2020, plans are for 25,000km, thanks to US$300bn (Dh1.1 trillion) of investment.

China's ministry of railways is prepared to pump in this much money despite global difficulties that high-speed railways have had in making a profit. Manop Sangiambut, the head of China research for the equity brokers and financial research company CLSA, said the authorities were considering a bigger picture than the economics of individual projects. "When you can travel between Beijing and Shanghai, that will save a lot of economic cost," he says.

"These projects will need some government subsidy to make them feasible. Overall, high-speed railway does provide lots of benefits to the economy." China's latest high-speed rail line opened in December, linking the industrial city of Wuhan on the Yangtze River with the booming southern metropolis of Guangzhou. The Harmony Express has cut the time for the 1,000km rail journey to three hours from as many as 11 hours before.

A local official described its effect on building economic ties as "immeasurable". China is not the only convert to the benefits of high-speed railways. In the years to come, UAE passengers could be stepping on board and enjoying the view as their carriages hurtle through the desert at 350kph. In December, the GCC states endorsed the building of a 2,200km line between Kuwait and Oman and engineers are now considering upgrading their plans to run high-speed trains.

If the speed is increased from 200kph to 350kph, the cost would jump from $15bn to $25bn. With the considerable investment required, the director of the GCC's transportation department, Ebrahim al Sabti, admits that the line, due to open in 2017, would be unlikely to make money. But the benefits in reduced pollution, accidents and road maintenance could make the cost worthwhile, he says. When they decide, the GCC states will no doubt be mindful of the experiences of China, where super-fast railways have not always enjoyed a smooth ride.

The train that runs between Shanghai Pudong International Airport and the city centre uses magnetic levitation technology (maglev) for support and power, and that technology has generated concerns among those living nearby over the effects of electromagnetic radiation. As well, China has had difficulty in persuading the German owners of the maglev technology to transfer it. As a result, plans to extend the line appeared to be marooned in the siding until the National People's Congress recently approved a multibillion-dollar project to link Shanghai and the city of Hangzhou by maglev.

In other cases, the Chinese have arranged the transfer of high-speed train technology from foreign companies. The Harmony Express trains, for example, are built in China using German and Japanese technology. The proposals have been criticised by those who feel extending the maglev line at a cost of 22bn yuan is unnecessary. China is also looking to become involved in high-speed rail overseas. It's perhaps no small irony that Chinese companies are likely to bid for contracts to build high-speed railways in California.

And Chinese companies are also eyeing rail projects in Russia and Brazil. Closer to home, the China Railway Construction Corporation last year secured part of a $1.8bn contract to build a high-speed line between Jeddah, Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. China has even revealed ambitious proposals to link Beijing and London by high-speed trains over the next decade. The journey is projected to take two days.

While high-speed trains may be popular with passengers, they can cause turbulence to the airline industry. The rolling stock may not be as fast as an aircraft, but as the trains run directly into city centres they can be more attractive than flying, even for business travellers. No wonder then that airlines have cut prices to stay competitive. China Southern Airlines used to charge a reported 700 yuan to fly between Guangzhou and Changsha, which lies on the line to Wuhan. This month, passengers could buy tickets online from the carrier for as little as 170 yuan.

In Europe, airlines have dropped some routes between major cities altogether as a result of competition from high-speed railways. Mr Sangiambut believes China's airlines will be put further on the back foot by new train routes. Flights of less than two hours, he says, would be "very much impacted" if high-speed trains start operating the same route. "They will come under pressure when these high-speed networks become more fully operational," he says. "I don't think they will be closed entirely, but frequency could be reduced."

The price of a Beijing-Shanghai high-speed train ticket has not been announced yet, but Mr Sangiambut says the ministry of railways will ensure it is "rather competitive" with flying. As a result, he thinks the Beijing-to-Shanghai air route will suffer when the high-speed rail line opens and cuts the rail trip from 10 hours to four hours. "There will be some impact for sure," he says. dbardsley@thenational.ae