Business / Industries

Bullet trains are cities' jewel in the crown

By Lan Lan (China Daily) Updated: 2015-05-20 07:25

Stations emerging as symbols of civic pride and routes to prosperity, reports Lan Lan. 

Towns are just scattered pearls without access to the fastest trains around, but they can become a necklace when there is one.

That is why residents in Jingzhou, Hubei province, think it is essential to have such a line serve their city.

The State Council announced in September that a 2,000-kilometer bullet train project from Shanghai to Chengdu in Sichuan province would be built with a design speed of 350 kilometers per hour. The exact route quickly became a subject of controversy.

The Yangtze River Business Chamber, based in Jingzhou, organized a petition drive in March at which it gathered tens of thousands of signatures in parks, stations and public squares.

Wang Jinghui, secretary-general of the chamber, told China Daily that the chance to have such a facility will not come twice for his historic city, known as the major setting of the Chinese classic novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

"People of all ages were so enthusiastic about the high-speed rail and they all wanted to contribute. We are so proud of our history and a high-speed rail line could help us regain our ancient glory," said Wang.

The problem for Jingzhou is that an express train that runs 200 km/hour already stops in the city. Jingmen, 80 km to the north, also wants to have a stop on the new line-and it now has no high-speed rail service at all.

Xiong Bing, chairman of Jingmen-based Chang Yuan Science and Technology Ltd, posted a video online, in which he said that "not having a high-speed rail line has hampered the city's development and affected civic pride". That attracted tens of thousands of clicks.

"Jingmen shouldn't be the only prefecture-level city in Hubei province that has no high-speed train or bullet train," he said.

The latest developments look good for Jingmen. Hubei's Party Chief Li Hongzhong said last Wednesday that it has been essentially decided that the railway will run through Jingmen.

"Jingmen will step up planning and research and strive for early implementation of the project with support from both the central and provincial governments," said Li.

"If it can't be built in Jingzhou, it should be built in a place in between the two cities," said Wang, expressing regret at this lost opportunity.

However, Peng Zhimin, an expert with the Hubei Academy of Social Sciences, said that putting a station in the middle of nowhere in the quest for fairness could be a losing proposition. Usually, places like that are not well-developed, which means higher infrastructure investment and a longer payback period for the facility.

As the rail network expands, this tale of two cities has been repeated in many other places. For example, Shangyang and Loudi in Hunan province and Xinye and Dengzhou in Henan province have competed to host high-speed rail facilities.

More similar stories are likely as policymakers ramp up high-speed rail investment. On Monday, the National Development and Reform Commission approved a host of new railway projects with a total investment of 243.58 billion yuan ($39.2 billion).

The government has set a spending target of 800 billion yuan on domestic railway construction this year, about the same as last year. Rail projects, along with highways, in the central and western regions of China, are regarded as a priority.

Guo Xiaopei, director of the Institute of Comprehensive Transportation under the NDRC, said that the government will take public sentiment into account, but the final decision on a rail line should rest on feasibility studies.

High-speed rail lines are technically demanding projects that present many geological and environmental challenges and have strict requirements for safety, Guo said.

But it is also true that local governments have gained a bigger say in such projects as railway financing is opening up to various capital sources including local governments and private investors. With the economy slowing, some cities are experiencing fiscal problems. Such cities do not want to get financially involved in new high-speed lines because of the long payback periods, said Guo.

But for some prefecture-level or county-level cities, a new railway, particularly a high-speed rail line, is still significant, said Guo.

Apart from the convenience it means for passengers and businesses, a new economic center usually forms around a railway station. So a high-speed rail stop can create jobs and alleviate the transportation, housing and education pressures facing many cities.

"A railway can bring prosperity to a city. That's certainly been the experience when it comes to conventional railways," he said.

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