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Ministry's control on railways questioned
Updated: 2004-12-05 16:25

China's Ministry of Railways has been challenged at a recent forum on coal because of its monopoly of transportation.

Coal often cannot be shipped because of lack of railways. In 2004 the demand of cars by main coal areas can only meet 30 percent of demand. Large amounts of coal cannot be shipped out, according to reliable sources.

Coal is the main energy resource in China. But most of the coal is in north China's Shanxi Province and Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, and northwest Shaanxi Province. Main consumers of coal, however, lie in the east and southeast China, relatively developed areas.

Some provinces and big companies, such as China Datang Group, an electric power company, and Inner Mongolia Yitai Coal Company Limited, proposed that they can build railways themselves and wrote report to the State Development and Reform Commission. According to Dong Yan, director of the Institute of Comprehensive Transportation under the Commission, it was "baffled" by the Ministry of Railways, who serves as the only "master" of railways in China.

The Ministry itself has done its best to transport more coal. About ten days ago, the Ministry urged its branches to transport more coal to meet the demand. However, China has only 73,000 kilometers of railway + much less than the length of one cigarette per Chinese person.

In order to transport more coal, many other goods have been suspended. For example, in Shanxi Province, coal transported by railways increased from 77 percent among all the goods in 2003 to 88 percent this year. Transportation of goods with high added valued such as steel and chemical combination have been delayed and this seriously hurt the economic development of the province.

The Ministry has said that in 2020 the railway will be able to transport two billion tons of coal per year, so the demand can be completely met by then.

But critics say the coal cannot wait for fifteen years. If it cannot be shipped in time, piles can self-ignite. Wu Yin, deputy director general of the Energy Bureau of the Commission, who has just come back from Shanxi, said workers in coal mines there were busy moving coal from one spot to other for fear that it might self-ignite.

"The kerosene they use in one month can reach 30 tons," he said. "Because of traffic jams, it is very common for trucks carrying coal to wait for one or two days without moving a meter forward."

The traffic jams are mostly caused by bad roads damaged by trucks overloaded with coal.

Wu said there is no problem with the output of coal, the most important problem is lack of railways. Reforms must be taken in the field of railways, and the monopoly of the Ministry of Railways should be broken down.

The Ministry have signed agreements with local governments of ten provinces to build railways together.

But Dong doubts what this will bring about. "Maybe local governments will build railways belonging to the Ministry of Railways."

Dong said if local governments and big companies can invest in railways and run them themselves, it can greatly push the reform of railways forward.

Liu Yingqiu, an expert with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the central government should encourage non- government investment. "The Ministry of Railways need not be afraid of it."

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