I first thought this should just be a piece of news: China is in negotiations with 17 countries to build a network of high speed (approximately 200 mph/322 km/h) railways from London to Beijing and from Beijing to Singapore. That’s London to Beijing in two days. I reckon most people don’t know that the Chinese are now the leading high-speed railroad builders in the world, or that China is putting its development dollars where its engineers say they should – into a network of high-speed trains in China that connects to word-wide routes. They have explicitly said they’re aiming for continental train travel nearly as fast as an airplane (…and potentially more efficient from an environmental perspective). This is much more than announcing just an average ‘technological’ project.
Of course, there is skepticism.
Building anything between London-Beijing-Singapore – 6,750 miles (10,863 km) is a colossal undertaking, much less something as technically demanding as a train line that can accommodate high speed trains. At this point most of the countries along the route don’t even use the same railroad gauge (track width); just one detail, although high speed trains often require unique track in any case. Three routes have been named, though unspecific: South to Vietnam and Cambodia, South East to swing through India, Burma, Thailand to Singapore, and North through Russia – replacing the Transiberian Railway – to Northern and Central Europe. Looking at a map, the rail lines must pass over some formidable mountain ranges, cross deserts, and jungles, and worst of all, run through highly populated areas. Some of the roadbed already exists, albeit in no condition for high speed trains.
Then there’s the politics. What have countries along the line to gain? (Access to Chinese markets.) What will China gain? (Access to the neighbor’s raw materials.) Since when does China make these kinds of negotiations with nominally unfriendly neighbors such as Vietnam, India, or Russia? What about political upheavals? There are revolutions and wars going on in these areas; do they not complicate such a world-spanning scheme that is so…ground hugging and vulnerable?
It all adds up to a lot of money. There is no formal estimate, but it obviously amounts to many billions (dollars, Euros, Yuan, or whatever). The Chinese say completion by 2020 is possible. It will take many years, decades probably, which is partly a function of money, but other factors apply.
It won’t all be done at once, of course. Several segments (Burma, Vietnam, Russia) are already in funding negotiations. The Chinese are working on the segments within China now. It’s in the middle of a $600 million domestic railway expansion that will connect all major cities with high-speed lines. This includes the world’s fastest train, the Harmony Express, which has a top speed of 250 mph (400 km/h). The technology for this train is from Siemens (Germany) and Kawasaki (Japan), but built entirely by the Chinese – by way of developing their manufacturing infrastructure. The Harmony Express travels 660 miles (1062 km) from Wuhan to Guangzhou in three hours. That’s a round trip from London to Edinburgh or a trip roughly from New York to Chicago.
One could debate the merits, the cost, the feasibility, the politics, and the PR value – forever – and we probably will, sporadically, for as long as China and other countries stick with the idea. Stick with it they probably will, as every year Asia seems to add credibility to inter-Asian cooperation.
However, I’m not sure the main point is whether this project ever gets started, or is partially started, or is partially completed, or whatever. Where this ‘grand design’ for linking China with Europe and the rest of Asia really has impact is perception. China gets credit for the ‘big momentum’ from having the vision to propose (or support) the idea and for having the technical confidence to pull it off. Not good, of course, if it fails in the technology.
This is not the China of old, nor is it the China of isolationism. It is China flexing its growing technical, industrial, and financial muscle. Impressive, if possibly a tad unrealistic; but then a lot of things that make a big impact on the future didn’t look realistic when they started.