Realistic railway growth

(China Daily)
Updated: 2011-04-18 15:41
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How should China's railways better serve the needs of different passengers?

This question has become increasingly prominent as the construction of high-speed railways has made such great headway in the past couple of years. However, the much higher ticket prices for high-speed trains and the skipping of quite a number of smaller stations have become grievances for many rail users.

The minister of railways announced a shift in its policy this week to address these concerns.

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Trains traveling at 300 kilometers per hour and trains traveling at 200 to 250 km/h will both run on lines with a designed speed of 300 km/h, the tickets for the slower trains will be cheaper and they will stop at more stations to meet the needs of passengers.

In the same way, on lines designed for speeds of 250-200 km/h, apart from the high-speed trains at 200-250 km/h, ordinary trains running at 120-160 km/h will also run to meet the needs of low-income passengers. Slower trains will also run on lines designed for speeds below 200 km/h to provide cheap transport for passengers in remote and mountainous areas.

Lowering the maximum speed of high-speed trains from 350 km/h to 300 km/h will make the country's express trains safer. Given the rapid development of high-speed rail in the past couple of years, this is a sensible choice.

Providing passengers with a choice of trains and ticket prices for trains at different speeds is also a good decision. The heavy debt the Ministry of Railways owes to banks because of its rapid development of high-speed rail obviously needs to be repaid with the income from ticket sales. High speed and expensive tickets will not necessarily guarantee a handsome return from the sale of tickets. Some passengers will likely be forced to seek other forms of transport, say coaches, instead, to save money.

So, a greater choice of trains will not just offer passengers more convenience, it will make it even easier for the Ministry of Railways to recoup the huge investment it has made.

A too rapid construction of high-speed rail is not realistic for China as the country's development is unbalanced. That explains why the Ministry of Railways has shifted its policy to develop lines designed for trains running at different speeds in the next five years.

A total of 50,000 kilometers of railway lines will be constructed in the western regions, most designed for speeds not exceeding 200 km/h. As the vast western regions are relatively under-developed, high-speed railway lines would be a waste of resources in this region.

This shift in railway construction policy should be lauded. Hopefully, the policy adjustment will be practical.