BY KOU JIE
1876, Shanghai. A hurtling locomotive pushed its way through paddy fields, ignoring the apprehension and disapproval of locals. Forcibly built by the British, the Woosung Railway, China’s first commercial railroad, served as an accomplice to plunder China’s wealth, which dissipated as clouds of steam faded into the horizon.
Neither the rancorous Chinese or the supercilious British could ever dream that within a century, China’s once humiliation-laden rail industry could become a symbol of its global influence, making an astonishing reversal of the story.
2018, London. A glittering bullet train darts on a 3D screen, drawing public attention. For the last few decades, Chinese tech-behemoths have studied, mastered and improved rail technologies, becoming front-runners in the bid to build High-Speed 2, the U.K.’s most significant high-speed railway.
“I have quoted the examples of China’s high-speed rail (HSR) in my parliament speech. I am looking forward to China participating in the bidding for the U.K.’s high-speed railway project,” said Michael Bates, former deputy chairman of the House of Lords in Record China High-Speed Railways, a book compiled by the People Rail Newspaper. He further added that the era of Britain solely leading the global railway industry is no more.
According to governmental statistics, as of 2017, China has 127,000 kilometers of railway, making it the second longest network in the world after the U.S., while the total length of China’s HSR network reached 25,000 kilometers, accounting 66.3 percent of the world’s tracks.
Criticizing the U.K.’s current indolent development in HSR, Bates noted that China now holds the most advanced HSR technologies, with all of “their associated advantages.”
“The history of China’s railway industry is the nation’s century-long development in miniature. Starting from scratch, China is now a leading power in railway design and manufacturing,” said Zhou Wei, vice director of the China Railway Museum.
Rising from the ashes
1864. Thirty-nine years after the U. K.’s first railway, the 27 km Stockton – Darlington line began operation, a British merchant built a 600-meter long railroad in Beijing to demonstrate the technology to the Chinese. The novelty spooked both the public and the imperial court, who dismantled the railway later, finding the technology “exceedingly strange.”
“The late arrival of rail in China was due both to the lack of industrialization and the public’s skeptical attitude towards modern technology. Ever since, foreign countries have built their own railway networks in China despite the country’s objection, marking the start of China’s humiliating railway history,” said Gou, a historian from China Railway Museum.
The lack of modern railway technologies meant that China heavily relied on foreign assistance. As of 1949, China possessed 4,069 locomotives, all of which were imported from nine foreign countries.
“Different technologies and railway standards were adopted in China in the 19th century. Though the Chinese authorities wanted to set a unified railway standard, its weakness and technical disadvantages gave it no say in such matters,” Zhou noted.
The rapid expansion of foreign railroad ownership and operation in China led to public resentment and calls for domestic rail development. In 1905, Chinese authorities decided to construct the Beijing-Zhangjiakou Railway, the first railway to be designed and built indigenously. The decision was mocked by foreign engineers, but Zhan Tianyou, the father of China’s railroad, completed the work two years ahead of schedule and under budget, proving China’s capability of building its own railway.
Following this successful tryout, Chinese engineers went on to create many historic firsts in railway construction. Building on barely permanent permafrost and anoxic highland, the 1,956-kilometer-long Qinghai-Tibet railway, which is the world’s highest and longest plateau railroad, successfully began service in 2006.
“The construction of the Qinghai-Tibet railway has created a great example of building railroads under complex geographical conditions. No worker died due to altitude sickness during construction, while the local environment has hardly been disrupted, which is an engineering miracle,” Zhou added.
China’s train research is also fruitful. When DF, China’s first domestic-made motor car, was released in 1958, the country accumulated rich experience, as well as absorbing new technologies from foreign tech-giants.
In 2006, China started manufacturing its high-speed EMU from scratch, finishing the nation’s first high-speed line from Beijing to Tianjin just two years later. Within a decade, Fuxing, the world’s fastest commercially-used bullet train, has cut the journey between Beijing and Shanghai to a mere 4 hours and 28 minutes, with a maximum speed of 350 kmph.
“Among all the 254 key standards used in Fuxing, 84 percent are Chinese. China is taking lead in core technologies including security monitoring and power supply. Speed is not the only advantage we have, and we are now setting the standard for the global HSR industry,” Zhou noted.
“Looking to the future, China’s role in the foreign market will be ably supported by its impressive technology, engineers and scientists with high skill levels that are involved throughout the development and delivery process,” said Jon Lamonte, CEO of Transport for Greater Manchester in the U.K.
Peaceful railway to joint prosperity China is now a leading power in HSR.
Serving as one of the most influential industrial products in modern China, HSR has expanded its popularity to foreign countries, promoting the “Chinese standard” and “made in China” worldwide.
In 2017, a century after China’s first commercial railway was built by U.K. merchants, a train from Yiwu, China, arrived in London. British media outlets, including The Guardian, said it “heralds the dawn of a new commercial era.”
China’s thriving HSR industry has brought both opportunities and benefits to itself and its global partners. According to a report released by the UN Economic Commission for Europe in 2017, Chinese exports, including high-tech products and automobile parts, are expected to grow faster during the period of 2015-2019 than they did during 2012-2014, thanks to the stretching China-European railroads. Furthermore, in July, a shipment of 160 Chinese-manufactured wheels for high-speed trains arrived in Germany, marking China’s first exportation of such products to Germany, a traditional tech-giant in HSR.
As for developing and underdeveloped nations, China has provided both railway technologies and training to help the growth of the local economy. In June, 63 railway executives from 13 countries including Thailand and Laos visited a training base for HSR in Wuhan to study HSR technologies, while conductors and workers from Kenya have also been invited to China for training as part of the Chinese-led Mombasa–Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway project.
“Railway is the artery of a nation’s economic development. Unlike foreign countries which used railway to exploit China in the 19th century, we are offering the world a win-win solution, as well as promoting the idea of joint prosperity,” said Zhou.
A century of fall and rise: China’s railway miracle
BY KOU JIE