Fears over Beijing Olympic rail link
By Mure Dickie (FT)
Updated: 2006-08-18 10:09


After a slow start by city planners and state-controlled contractors, the most challenging race of the 2008 Beijing Olympic may prove to be the rush to build a 28km high-tech rail link between the Chinese capital's airport and the city centre.

While other Olympics-related projects appear to be on or ahead of schedule, planners have left little margin for error in the construction schedule for the high-profile airport link.

"Some people are worried about whether work will be completed on time. We are also worried," says an official of Beijing Dongzhimen Airport Express Rail, the company created to build and operate the line.

Under the project's timetable, construction of the line is to be completed by the end of 2007, with test operation to start in April 2008 and a formal opening just one month before the August start of the games.

Such a short timetable for a project of this type is unprecedented, says Zhang Jianwei, chief country representative for Bombardier, the Montreal-based transport equipment company responsible for the line¡¯s core technology.

"The biggest challenge for us is time ... the schedule is very, very tight," says Mr Zhang.

Still, he stresses that he is confident Bombardier can meet its responsibilities and notes that Chinese contractors working 24 hours a day routinely complete projects in times that would be impossible in other countries.

For Bombardier, which will supply core systems and project management expertise through Chinese partner Changchun Railway Vehicles, the airport link is a flagship project that will showcase its advanced electric linear-motor trains.

The system will be only the second automated "driverless" trains in China after another shorter link between Beijing airport terminals that is also being supplied by the Canadian company, Mr Zhang says. Even if the line opens on time, however, the need for haste could make it harder for civil works contractors to maintain the construction standards on its raised tracks and underground sections.

Concerns over the timetable also highlight a wider lack of transparency surrounding the airport link, which has been described by a local newspaper as a "mystery to the public".

Bombardier is the only company involved that has released detailed information about its role.

Such is the lack of information about the project that it is unclear when civil works construction actually began. Some work reportedly started in June last year, but municipal officials said then that it had been postponed because of delays in winning central government approval.

It is also unclear why the timing of the project, which has been under detailed planning since at least 2001, was allowed to become so tight.

Local media reported in January 2005 that selection of the train supplier had been "basically decided", but confirmation came only when Bombardier announced its involvement in March this year.

Dongzhimen Airport Express also declines to give any details of the companies chosen to build the 11 separate sections of the line, with one senior project official saying he does not even know how many contractors are involved. "[I] haven't counted them," he says.

Such opacity is common in Chinese infrastructure projects, though officials have in the past stressed the need for greater transparency to curb rampant public works corruption.

The line is being built under a "build-operate-transfer" contract, but a senior Dongzhimen Airport Express official says he is "unclear" about the terms of investment and admits the city government has yet to set out the details of the deal.