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China speeds ahead

August 30, 2017

China's fast trains are the most ambitious in the world. The plan is to surpass European and Japanese rivals and conquer more than only the Chinese market, according to Frank Sieren.

China Hochgeschwindigkeitszug Fuxing
Image: picture-alliance/Zumapress.com

The future belongs to trains. At least in China - and the continent of Asia as a whole - if all goes according to the Chinese government's plans. China's latest technical wonder will go into operation on September 21 - it's a high-speed train called Fuxing, which means "renewal" or "revival." It will cut down the nearly 1,300-kilometer (808-mile) trip between Beijing and Shanghai by about an hour to 4.5 hours and will run seven times a day. By contrast, it takes Germany's high-speed ICE trains about six hours to travel from Hamburg to Munich, which is about half the distance. The Chinese trains can already reach a speed of 350 kph (218 mph), which is supposed to go up to 400 kph in the future. There is only one faster long-distance train - the Japanese Maglev - which has reached 603 kph in a test, but only in a test so far. And the infrastructure for the Tokyo-Nagoya line is only expected to be ready for commercial travel in about 10 years time.

Setting the bar higher

China Hochgeschwindigkeitszug Fuxing
The Fuxing is the newest generation of China's high-speed trainsImage: picture-alliance/Zumapress.com

Railroads are nothing new for China. The line from the capital to the business hub of Shanghai is the country's most important. It is used by about 600 million a people a year and made about $1 billion (840 million euros) in 2016. If the Fuxing trains prove themselves on this line, China will set new standards in terms of high-speed rail travel. If successful, the fact that they have managed to accomplish this so fast is astonishing considering it has not been easy. It has required a great deal of expense - $118 billion in 2016 alone. Half a trillion dollars have been put aside for high-speed rail travel in the current 5-year plan. That speaks for itself. There are also plenty of resourceful engineers working non-stop and motivated by promises that their developments will be immediately put to good use.

China's high-speed rail network already covers some 22,000 kilometers - that's about two-thirds of the global network. The goal is for there to be 30,000 kilometers by 2030. There are eight north-south and east-west lines. By 2030, some 80 percent of Chinese cities with populations of over a million will be connected to the network. Even Hong Kong is getting a high-speed rail link to the mainland next year.

Frank Sieren
DW columnist Frank SierenImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Tirl

This is all ideal advertising for Chinese trains and technology, which the government is hoping to sell all over the world. A deal has already been signed with Indonesia. It includes Fuxing trains and also the construction of a rail line between Indonesia's capital, Jakarta, and the country's fourth-largest city of Bandung. Travel time will be shortened from three hours to 40 minutes. The building of a train link between China and Thailand is already underway. Last week, a 6,630-kilometer railway for goods trains to Russia was opened. The construction of a high-speed railway line between Moscow and Kazan is currently under negotiation - if it goes ahead, trains will be able to travel at a speed of 360 kph.

Rapid development

One of the reasons behind the speed of China's high-speed rail development is that the country has been working with foreign firms for many years and has been able to learn plenty. In 2004, German, French and Japanese companies were allowed access to the Chinese market - in return for technology. Now, 13 years later, the exchange seems to have worked for China - less so for the others that have become China's rivals. It doesn't really matter what China gleaned from others now - what is more important is to find out what Beijing intends to do with its information.

Interior of a Fuxing train with an employee storing a briefcase in an overhead shelf
The Fuxing is nearly like traveling on a planeImage: picture-alliance/Zumapress.com

As a whole, it seems that China's current projects serve its wider New Silk Road project. Whether in Russia, India or Southeast Asia, the new train lines will create a trans-Asian corridor to Europe. This is a development that Europe can look forward to in economic terms. However, it would prefer already to be benefitting from the construction. But neither German ICEs nor French TGVs will be running on these future rail lines. In the best-case scenario, companies such as Siemens will act as suppliers. Nonetheless, the rail links will boost the economy in Eurasia.

DW correspondent Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for over 20 years.