Spring Festival is the peak traveling season in China. This year about 230 million passengers are expected to travel back home by train for family reunions.
The huge pressure that the movement of so many people creates on the country's rail transport has sparked a debate on how to develop, expand and improve the existing network. This debate, however, is not new. Come Spring Festival every year, and people from laymen to experts start voicing their opinions on the transport network.
But now the debate has shifted to high-speed railways.
There are currently 8,358 kilometers of high-speed railway in China, and the country reportedly plans to invest $106 billion in railway construction.
There is no denying that high-speed trains have made traveling more convenient and shortened travel time. But compared with other means of transport like ordinary trains, and buses and planes, high-speed railways attract fewer passengers. And high-speed train tickets are beyond the reach of the majority of migrant workers and students.
For example, a first-class ticket for a ride on a high-speed train from Guangzhou to Wuhan costs 780 yuan ($118). A normal ticket costs 490 yuan. Compare the cost of a first-class ticket to an air ticket on the route, which may be about 800 yuan during Spring Festival but during the rest of the year the discounts offered by airlines can bring down the price to about 300 yuan.
So, is the huge investment in high-speed railways worth the cost?
Until now, high-speed railways have not shown any signs of relieving the pressure on the transport network during the Spring Festival.
The transport problem during Spring Festival highlights a structural contradiction: The world's largest movement of people needs more transport facilities, but the need is restricted to once a year.
This dilemma may prevent travel during Spring Festival from becoming easy and comfortable for many people for years.
Building new high-speed railway lines and adding more high-speed trains to the network will be a great waste of money and resources, because they would not be used to their optimum capacity during the rest of the year.
But consider this: By the end of 2009, China's railway network covered a total length of 86,000 km, about 6 percent of world's total, but it had to serve 24 percent of the world's railway passengers. This shows that the development of transport, especially railways, has lagged far behind national economic growth.
Though the country has poured more funds and made greater efforts to expand the transport network after emerging from the global financial crisis, the emphasis on high-speed railways may not meet people's needs.
Greater efforts should be made to build more normal speed railways. For example, there have been kilometers-long traffic jams on the Beijing-Tibet Expressway, because the dearth of goods trains has forced coal companies in the Inner Mongolia autonomous region to use trucks to transport the mineral.
The author is a research scholar with the School of Economics, Nankai University, Tianjin.