BEIJING - China may cut its investment in railway infrastructure this year by more than 200 billion yuan ($31 billion) following an earlier decision to slow down the operating speed of its high-speed trains, the Economic Observer reported on Tuesday.
The Beijing-based newspaper claimed the Ministry of Railways had organized meetings in recent days and had invited experts and officials to discuss whether it was still necessary to begin work on railway projects that had not yet started.
An anonymous source was quoted as saying the discussions ended in agreement that this year's investment in the construction of railway infrastructure would be slashed by 200 billion yuan from the planned 700 billion.
The news report went on to say that some high-speed railway projects would be scrapped, but it said the ministry was awaiting the experts' opinions on which ones could be cut without affecting the network's efficiency.
A publicity official with the Ministry of Railways said on Tuesday that the amount of money mentioned in the report was "inaccurate" but declined to elaborate and would not confirm or deny whether total investment would be cut this year.
According to the newspaper, the new railways minister, Sheng Guangzu, who took over from former minister Liu Zhijun on Feb 25, had long wanted to reduce investment in new railway projects.
In an interview with People's Daily on April 13, Sheng said priority would be given to ongoing projects so they will have enough funding to allow construction to be completed. He said emphasis will also be given to projects for which there is an urgent demand because of economic development and projects that link up lines to form a network.
He also said in that earlier interview that fast trains' operating speed would be reduced from 350 km/h to 300 km/h and noted that additional 200 to 250 km/h train services would be offered to travelers in a bid to ensure tickets remained affordable.
The ideas were dubbed a "conservative development mode" in comparison to those of his predecessor, who advocated "leap-frog" railway development by building a high-speed rail network.
Liu was removed from his post for an alleged "severe violation of discipline" on Feb 12. Without knowing the investigation was pending, he said at a meeting on Jan 4 that investment in railway infrastructure in 2011 would be 700 billion yuan. He said the money would be spent on 70 new projects, including 15 high-speed and inter-city programs.
But the ministry has long been under pressure because some critics have said the large-scale construction of high-speed rail infrastructure was causing the ministry to run up huge debts that could crush it.
A railway researcher told China Daily on Tuesday that some of the ministry's money had been used to build railways that were not in the country's mid- or long-term railway plan, which was revised and approved by the State Council, China's Cabinet, in 2008.
Some of the additional projects had been proposed by local governments that wanted to boost their economy and that would benefit from the ministry paying nearly half of the cost of the work, the newspaper said.
The researcher, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said it was right to cut down the size of the building program and focus on lines that are urgently needed.
Several other commentators disagreed.
A netizen from Suqian city, Jiangsu province, said in a post on ifeng.com that what was being proposed was "like moving from one extreme to the other".
"A country's railway plan should not change because a minister is changed," he said, asking whether tickets would be even harder to get as a result.
Wang Mengshu, a professor with the Research Center of Tunnel and Underground Engineering at Beijing Jiaotong University, said the scale of construction should not be reduced because "the previous railway plan was set to meet the demands of the country and the people".
He said the decision on how much money should be spent on railway construction rests with the central government, not the minister alone.
Zhao Jian, a transport professor at Beijing Jiaotong University, said China needs more railway capacity and could build more cargo-carrying lines instead to free up existing lines for 200 km/h passenger trains.