High velocity – high cost: How much speed do we need?

As more of China’s high-speed-rail lines hit top speeds of 350km/h, Jiemian News asks if the high speeds justify the high costs.

Photo by Tang Jun

Photo by Tang Jun

By TANG Jun

 

On December 24, high-speed trains between Chengdu and Chongqing began running at 350 km/h, the fourth line in China to hit that speed. The Fuxing EMU has reduced the shortest time for the route by about 15 minutes to 62 minutes.

The China Railway Group has a sworn duty to speed already very fast trains up, to shorten the tracking time and increase efficiency. Trains from Qingdao to Weihai, Nanjing to Anqing, and Guiyang to Guangzhou will all be going faster soon.

By around 2007, China's railways had been upgraded and transformed so many times that trains, conventional locomotives, were going just about as fast as they could. The arrival of high-speed trains in 2008 represented a quantum leap in speed to 350 km/h and speed which is fast becoming seen as normal. Things slowed down briefly in 2011 when two high-speed trains ran into each other in Wenzhou, causing 40 deaths.

A question of safety and money

HE Huawu, the former chief engineer of the Ministry of Railways, told Xinhua News at the time that the speed reduction was not due to safety issues, but the market. For the next few years, the operating speed of trains was much slower than the design speed. In 2017, things began to speed up again and trains on at least five routes now operate at their design speed of 350 km/h.

There are another 20 or so lines still running at 300 km/h, which could run safely at the higher speed, but do they really need to?

There has never been an incident in China involving a 350 km/h train except for the Wenzhou accident which was due to the signaling system.

"The technology is mature, and safety is controllable," SHUAI Bin, a professor at Southwest Jiaotong University, told Jiemian News.

Money, however, is a bigger obstruction than safety. Increasing the speed from 300 km/h to 350 km/h increases costs sharply if new tracks have to be laid.

In the case of Chengdu-Chongqing, the track, signals, communications, and other infrastructure have been reinforced and reconstructed and the technical equipment updated. All that upgrade cost a fortune.

Shuai believes that an overall speeding up is not only a technical issue, but involves complicated economic issues, and the conditions of each line will vary.

New dynamics

"Speed depends on regional economic development. The higher the speed, the better? That is not always the case. There are always marginal benefits. And costs."

"If costs are high and social benefits questionable, there is no need to speed up," Shuai said.

Among all four high-speed train routes reach 350km/h, two have applied to a dynamic pricing mechanism. The less time-consuming the trip is, the more expansive the tickets are.

The flexible pricing mechanism has been contributing to the profit of the railways. Take the Beijing-Shanghai train for instance, based on the current passenger load factor and train schedule, the dynamic pricing mechanism will bring 240 million yuan more to the railway company this year. 

Beijing-Shanghai and Chengdu-Chongqing high-speed rails also offer multi-trip tickets and commuter tickets, a market-oriented dimension rarely seen on ordinary trains. With more trains speeding up, such marketing strategies may become more common in the future.