Transportation Deployment Casebook/2015/High-Speed Railway Development in China


There are different definitions of high-speed rail in different contexts. The most extended one is the one proposed by the European Union[1]:

  • Separate lines built for speeds of 250 kilometers per hour (km/h) (150 mph), or
  • Existing lines upgraded to speeds of 200 km/h (125 mph), or
  • Upgraded lines whose speeds are constrained by circumstances such as topography or urban development[2].

The definition of high-speed rail published by the National Railway Administration of the People’s Republic of China is either:

  • Multiple units with speed higher than or equal to 250 km/hour (155 mile/hour), or
  • Passenger rails with speed higher than or equal to 200 km/hour ( 124 mile/hour)[3].

Although there are no universally-accepted definition of high-speed rail, there are still several characteristics shared by most high-speed rail technologies in the world, especially in China: 1) largely updated or renovated infrastructures; 2) larger minimum turning radius to allow higher speed; 3) wider distance between tracks to ensure safety; 4) avoiding multi-layer crossing between lines. The high-speed rail in China focus more on carrying passengers instead of freights.

There several main advantages of high-speed rail:

  • Bigger carrying capacity

Compared to vehicles and airplanes, high-speed trains carry more passengers. Current carry capacity of high-speed trains in China can reach around 800 passengers per train. High-speed trains can also operate more frequently than airplanes and highways. The average headway time between high-speed trains around the world is 4 minutes. Approximately 280 trains departs everyday. Suppose the average carrying capacity is 800 passengers per train, the annual ridership of high-speed rail can reach 8.2 billion. A highway with four lanes could potentially carry 87.6 million people per year. Limited by capability, airplanes can only carry about 15-18 million riders annually.

  • Higher time efficiency

Passengers usually care more about travelling time than travelling speed. As an example, the trip from Beijing to Shanghai under normal weather takes approximately five hours (including the travelling time from inner city to the airport and the time for security check). Taking high-speed rail would cost also 5 - 6 hours in total with lower fare. Via the highway, the trip from Beijing to Shanghai would potentially take up to 16 hours.

  • Safety

Besides the Eschede train disaster in Germany 1998 and the Wenzhou train collision in China 2011, there are no other major fatal accidents occurred regarding high-speed rail since its birth. Consequently, high-speed rail is being considered as one of the safest transportation mode. In contrast, the fatality on highways around the world is around 250 - 300 thousand people. As for air transport, there are up to 140 deaths per 1 billion kilometers (around 620 million miles).

  • Higher on-schedule rate

The automatic controlling system of high-speed rail can operate 24/7 unless there are severe geographic disasters like earthquakes. Even with strong wind, high-speed rail can still operate under certain speed limits. On the other hand, airplanes and highways won’t be able to operate normally under similar circumstances. The high-speed rail company in Spain (AVE) would refund all the fare to passengers if the trains are 5 minutes later than scheduled time. While the average delay of Shinkansen rail system in Japan was only 0.3 minutes in 1997.

Besides the advantages mentioned above, high-speed rails are also more comfortable for passengers and more environmental-friendly.

The Growth of Railroad in ChinaEdit


China started to receive knowledge regarding railroad transport in the middle of the 19th century, after China had failed in the first opium war with the Britain. During those time there were still technological and political obstacles against building railroads within China. Nevertheless, many western industrial countries seeked to build railroads in China to transport their freights and goods. In 1876, the first railroad in China, Wusong railroad built by some British merchants, was put into use. Although this first segment of railroads was disassembled in response to people’s opposition, more railroads were built since then. Nevertheless, due to the static feudal political system of China, the development of railroads in China was slow in the 19th century. From the year of 1894 to 1876, only 400 kilometers (294 miles) of railroads were built.

Early stage of growthEdit

Since 1894, countries like Germany, Japan, Britain and Russia all built and operated railroads in China. Meanwhile, the Chinese government began to build their own railroads. One famous example is the Jingzhang railroads connecting Beijing and Zhangjiakou, which is the first railroad that was funded, designed and built entirely by the Chinese. After Japan’s invasion in 1931, over 5,900 kilometers (3,666 miles) of railroads in the northeast part of China were taken over by the Japanese. From 1931 to the end of the World War II, Japanese colonizers had built around 5,700 kilometers (3,542 miles) of railroads in that area. Despite the inhumanity activities of Japanese troops in China, their construction of the railroads was the foundation of the industrial development in northeastern China. China also witnesses its precursor of high-speed rail service during the invasion of the Japanese. Asia Express, a luxury passenger train that operated in Japanese-controlled Manchuria from 1934 to 1943, was considered the earliest form of high-speed train in China[4]. This steam-engine train was even faster than the fastest train in Japan at the time. After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, this locomotive was under the operation of the Ministry of Railway.

From 1949 to 1978Edit

The government of the People’s Republic of China put great effort on the development of railroads since its establishment in 1949. In the year of 1949, the troops and workers of PRC repaired over 8,000 kilometers (4971 miles) of railroads, which were destroyed in the civil war. The policy towards railway development has also begun since 1950, during which the Chinese government issued a national standard for railroad administration across the country. This new standard integrated all the railroads built by different countries under the unitary operation of the central government. From 1953 to 1978, China began to construct its railroad system based on the 5-year central plans which were issued every five years. Despite several political turmoils which highly interfered the railroad development, the basic railway network was still formed during these four decades.

From 1978 to 1995Edit

The “Opening and Revolution” in 1978 largely accelerate the development of transportation system in China, including railroads. The railway tracks within China reached 52,119 kilometers (32,385 miles) in 1985 and over 86,000 kilometers (53,437 miles) in 2009. China began to build high-speed railway under a nationwide comprehensive plan in the early 1990s. After the Ministry of Railway submitted a proposal on high-speed railway 1990, policy makers in China started debating the necessity and economic viability of building high-speed rail for several years. Then in 1995, the Premier of China at the time announced that the preparation of the first modern high-speed railway in China would begin during the 9th Five Year Plan (1996-2000).

From 1995 to presentEdit

In order to provide faster train services for passengers, the Chinese government started 5 “Speed-up Campaign” from 1997 to 2004, passenger service on 7,700 km (4,800 mi) of existing tracks was upgraded to reach sub-high speeds of 160 km/h (100 mile/hour). In 2007, the sixth round of “Speed-up Campaign” was also completed, and the speed of existing lines reached 250 km/h (155 miles/hour) and 200 km/h (124 miles/hour).

Before High-Speed RailEdit

Before high-speed rail was introduced to China, the main ways of long-distance travelling were highways, airplanes and traditional trains. But there are certain limitations in all of them.

Driving on highways costs least. However, before 1990s, only few people in China could afford personal vehicles. After income level increased, more families could afford cars but the highway started to get more and more congested. There are news of people being stuck on highways for days every year.

Taking the airplanes is the most time-efficient transport mode before high-speed rail was introduced. However, for a long period of time, the majority of people in China could not afford plane ticket fares. When more and more people started to take the plane after 1990s, the air traffic began to become congested as well. Due to the weather instability and the air traffic control, the flights in China were constantly delayed. Safety issues are also one of the biggest concern of passengers. Although airplanes were considered one of the safest modes of travelling, the news of airplane crash usually draw much more attention of the public than car crashes and train collisions. Consequently, many people were under the impression that airplanes are not safe enough.

For a long time, traditional trains (or “green trains” because many old trains in China were painted green) were the dominant modes for long-distance travel in China. With the fast economic growth after the Opening and Revolution, the need for faster travelling is becoming more imminent. Meanwhile, people were also demanding for better services as their income level goes up. Traditional trains in China gradually became outdated for it’s slow speed and rather unsatisfying services.

Life Cycle AnalysisEdit

After the sixth "Speed-up Campaign", multiple units with speed from 200 - 250 km (124 - 155 miles/hour) started to operate in China in the year of 2007. In this paper, we would analyze the ridership data from 2007 to 2014[5]. The data indicates that the ridership of high-speed rail in China is increasing in a rather constant speed.

This graph shows the actual ridership and the predicted ridership of China's high-speed rail from the year of 2007 to 2014.
Year Ridership (Million)
2007 61.21
2008 127.73
2009 179.58
2010 290.54
2011 440
2012 486
2013 672
2014 893.2

By running a regression, we can build a model depicting how high-speed rail ridership is changing overtime. In this analysis, a three-parameter logistic function was used to fit the life cycle curve of the high speed railway ridership. The equation is shown below.


In this model:

Y(t) = Predicted ridership

b = Coefficient

K = Saturation status level constant

t = Years

t_o = Inflection time

The R^2 of the model is 92%, indicating that the correlations are very significant. Judging by the line graph we produced, we can see that, besides some bumps, the predicted ridership is overall fairly close to the actual ridership. The graph also indicates that high-speed railway is still growing in China, and it is very likely that we can still see steady growth in ridership of Chinese high-speed railways.

Policy IssuesEdit

Governing StructuresEdit

The governing structures of railway in China has been changing over the years. Railroads in China used to be governed entirely by the Ministry of Railway (MoR). In the year of 1990, the central government started to allocate the controlling power to local governments and enterprises. China’s governing of railroads were also under the influence of the Railway Law issued in the early 1990s. And different levels of railroads were governed by different levels of government entities:

  • National railway will be administered by the Ministry of Railway;
  • Local railway would be administered by regional governments, provinces and cities;
  • Industrial railways were usually maintained and operated by private enterprises; specifically for their shipping purposes;

There are also private railways such as branch railway lines controlled by enterprises[6].

The problem of corruption is a long-term concern of the railway development in China. A former minister of the Ministry of Railway was removed from his place in 2011 because of corruption. Another minister, Zhang Shuguang, was also was also sacked for corruption[7]. The Wenzhou train collision in 2011 further revealed the corruption inside the railway administration in China. After this deadly accident, China decided to decrease the speed of high-speed trains in China and to alter governing structure regarding railroads. In 2011, the Chinese Congress made the decision to separate marketing from political governing and transfer the Ministry of Railway to China Railway Company.

Roles of PoliciesEdit

Based on the analysis above, we could say that high-speed rail in China has been born and is still growing. Policies played different roles in these two phases. At the start, policies helped to allocate resources to the construction of railroads. The Ministry of Railroad also played an important role in designing the comprehensive network of railroads. Nevertheless, when the development of high-speed railway in China reached the phase of growth, the policy began to limit the developing potential of railways in China. Political control decreased the operating efficiency of high-speed rail. That was when China transferred the former Ministry of Railway into China Rail Company.


The technological innovation of China’s high-speed rail system includes two main aspects: rolling stocks and tracks.

China has imported high-speed multiple units from other countries and redesigned the key components of these trainsets including signalling system, station design, supporting infrastructures, and controlling software. These multiple units were updated multiple times from CRH-1 to CRH-5 in China. The power of multiple units don’t come from a single engine which serves all the carriages in a train. Instead, there are power source on every carriage of a multiple unit train, in which way the train can get more power to operate more freely. Multiple engines could also highly increase the mobility of the train. There are cabs on both end of the multiple unit train. This design allows changing moving direction more conveniently. Multiple units can also operate in different lengths. A whole train could disassemble into different parts on the way and go to separate directions. Multiple units are very widely used in Japan, Netherlands, Britain and France.

Another aspect of high-speed rail innovation in China is the track technology, which was originally imported from Germany. One major weakness of original tracks is that it cannot sustain heavy use without constant maintenance. As a result the original tracks requires high maintenance costs. The new track technology, which is referred to as ballastless track, allows smoother train rides as higher speed without too much warping (GC Ticker). Thus highly reducing the costs of maintenance.

After successfully launched high-speed railway system, China has recently begun to export their technologies to other countries. Chinese train-makers and rail builders have signed agreements to build HSRs in Turkey, Venezuela and Argentina (8 Bradsher). In 2015, China has signed an agreement with Russia to design a high-speed railway between the Russian cities of Moscow and Kazan.’ The Chinese firm will work alongside two Russian companies to come up with a plan with 770 kilometer (478 miles) of high-speed rail and a total of 20.8 billion rubles ($383 million) over the next two years. China is also bidding to win high-speed rail contracts in America, Brazil and Mexico.

Marketing StrategiesEdit

Ridership is one of the most important indicator of whether a high-speed rail system is successful or not. There are several major issues affecting ridership:

Economics developmentEdit

The purposes for travelling mainly came from the need for production and consumption. Thus ridership is largely decided by the level of economy and the speed of economic growth.

Population and UrbanizationEdit

The sizes of the cities on the railway is essential to determine the ridership. With the rapid urbanization in China and more people moving to big cities, the need for travelling has increased. Fares Under the similar service, passengers always tend to choose transportation mode with lower prices. With a relatively lower income level, Chinese passengers’ choices of transport mode are more sensitive to the change of prices.

Services of the competing modesEdit

The ridership of one transport mode is also highly affected by the service conditions of other modes. In China, because of the congestion on highways and the frequent delay of flights, high-speed railway is gaining popularity.

Based upon the determinants of ridership discussed above, the Chinese high-speed railway system adopted several main strategies to ensure enough ridership of high-speed railway:

  • Raising the speed and make high-speed rail more competitive among all the transport modes. According to previous research, within the distance of 300 km (186 miles), if the speed of trains cannot be higher than 100 km/h (62 miles/hour), then the train won’t be able to compete with highways; if the speed of trains cannot be higher than 250 km/h ( 155 miles/hour), then the train won’t be able to compete with airplanes. Consequently, in order to make high-speed rail stand out, policy makers and planners need to maintain the speed of high-speed trains as least 250 km/h ( 155 miles/hour).
  • Creating a more reasonable pricing system. The fares of trains in China used to be almost completely controlled by the government, as a result the fares weren’t able to reflect the supply and demand very well. Under the revolution that is going on in China right now, high-speed-train prices will be better linked to demand.
  • Providing better services. High-speed railways are mostly competing for passengers with highways and airplanes, so the services are an important component attracting customers. Right now, the punctuality and good customer services in China is attracting more and more riders.

Ensuring safety. People’s fear of airplane crash is also part of the reason why they chose other modes of transport. Despite the Wenzhou train collision in 2011, the overall safety level of high-speed rail is higher than airplanes or highways. So when it comes to long-distance travelling, people might choose high-speed railway over airplanes or highways for safety reasons.


  1. Council Directive 96/48/EC, (1996). Official Journal L 235 , 17/09/1996 P. 06 - 24.
  2. Peterman, D.R., J. Frittelli, W.J. Mallett (2009). High Speed Rail (HSR) in the United States. Congressional Research Service, 7-5700,, R40973.
  3. National Railway Administration of the People’s Republic of China
  4. Louise Young. Japan's Total Empire. Berkeley: University of California Press.1998. pp.246-7.
  5. "中国高速铁路: 运量分析" (PDF) (in Chinese). World Bank. December 2014. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2014-12-21. Retrieved 2015-10-17.
  6. Railway Reform:Toolkit for Improving Rail Sector Performance
  7. "Off the rails?". The Economist. 2011-03-31.