The world wants China’s 290kmh trains – but at what cost?

Beijing has bought influence by exporting its high-speed rail technology to Kenya, Indonesia and other countries. But trouble is on the line, writes Yu Jie.

The World Today
2 minute READ

It is that time of year again, when the people of China eat, drink and make merry in celebration of the Lunar New Year.

While living in England, as I now do, I am still nostalgic for those long train journeys home with my parents in the days running up to the Spring Festival. The 1,700km journey from Beijing to our hometown of Chongqing, a mega-metropolis in the southwest, took a full three days on those lumbering old trains.

The biggest human migration on the planet

It was a far cry from the glamour of the Orient Express, with cramped bunk bed berths hidden behind a dark green curtain with a faded yellow interior. We were joining millions of our compatriots on what is known as Chun Yun, literally ‘movement for the Spring Festival’. It is said to be the biggest human migration on the planet each year.

Those long-distance train tickets were much sought-after. In most cases, a family of three like us could only reserve one adult ticket for the sleeper carriage, one seat and a child ticket. My parents swapped round every few hours to sleep while I gazed out all day at the changing landscape.

Perhaps it was only on these train journeys that the people of China’s diverse society were drawn together so intimately. Excited strangers became friends as the hours rattled by. Migrant workers, professional people, students and families all travelled together, all in high spirits.

Yet, those long-haul trains have now become a rarity. Instead, high-speed railways with shiny, air-conditioned carriages have replaced the Soviet-style trains of old.

The journey of my past from Beijing to Chongqing has been cut from 60 hours to a whizzy 10 hours.

At the end of 2023, there were about 40,000km of high-speed railtrack joining up the far corners of the country, enough to encircle the world. The journey of my past from Beijing to Chongqing has been cut from 60 hours to a whizzy 10 hours on high-speed trains that average 290km/h. Mind, the ticket price has also increased five-fold.

China’s ambition was to make high-speed rail the transport of choice for long-distance travellers, but these super trains have a much greater significance. Much like Japan’s Shinkansen – bullet trains – in the 1960s, China’s high-speed railways are synonymous with its growing economic power. For Beijing, the high-speed rail network is also a powerful means for social cohesion, connecting disparate regions with their distinct cultures.

Getting richer by building roads

The old Chinese expression ‘getting richer by building roads’ has influenced China’s leadership. The country’s economic success has been partly built on investing in infrastructures through public finance and state loans.

Beijing initially relied on technology imported from Europe. Conglomerates such as Siemens and Alstom were keen to help. Since then, domestic companies have not only adopted foreign technology and engineering but developed their own in answer to the Chinese leadership’s call to achieve scientific self-reliance. China’s high-speed rail technologies are now among the best in the world.

Beijing also makes its high-speed trains part of its diplomatic model by exporting its technology, expertise and infrastructure to other nations.

This is part of China’s broader Belt and Road Initiative which aims to enhance economic connectivity around the world. For example, China has made massive investments in Indonesia’s Jakarta-Bandung Line, known as the Whoosh, and Trans-Lao railroad, as well as lines in Kenya, Vietnam and Thailand.

Some countries have raised concerns about the financial implications of Chinese-backed high-speed rail projects.

In an ideal scenario, high-speed rail projects can promote regional integration by connecting China’s neighbouring countries and enhancing cross-border transport links. This is in line with Beijing’s vision of fostering economic interdependence and regional development.

The railway projects are often viewed in the context of its geopolitical ambitions, too. By providing infrastructure support, China aims to strengthen its economic and political influence.

While there are benefits, some countries have raised concerns about the financial implications of Chinese-backed projects – potential debt burdens and the sustainability of high-speed rail investments long term.

Not all high-speed train projects have had a smooth ride. Beijing’s centralized state funding and planning model is not so easily replicated and some countries have seen projects delayed by endless legal wrangles.

Meanwhile, Beijing’s spending spree abroad has had to come to an end as it grapples with its own domestic economic woes. This presents it with a dilemma: can it tighten its belt while keeping close relations with those countries seeking development assistance and investment in infrastructure?

Geopolitics aside, while I may lament the disappearance of the slow trains of my childhood, modern convenience inevitably replaces nostalgia as time moves on.

On that note, let me wish everyone a very prosperous year of the Dragon!