China’s long-distance commuters no longer waiting in vain

The government has come up with guidance on suburban rail networks, but there is a long way to go before these trains relieve congestion and affect housing prices.

Photo from CFP

Photo from CFP



05:40: get up

05:55: leave the apartment in Langfang

06:15: board bus to metro station

07:44: arrive at Fenzhongsi Station, Line 10

08:00: arrive at Songjiazhuang Station, change to Line 5

08:40: exit metro at Beiyuanlubei Station, find a shared bike

08:49: arrive at the office

This log of an everyday 80km commute in Beijing has drawn over 1 million "likes" on Chinese social media platform Douyin, though most of the viewers don’t like it at all. Among the 100 thousand comments, most sympathize with the drudgery of long-distance commuting.

With the expansion of metropolitan areas and soaring house prices, office workers in downtown Beijing and Shanghai have little choice but to live in satellite cities or suburban towns and travel back and forth every day. China has no history of this kind of medium distance public transportation and the State Council recently felt the need to issue guidelines on developing suburban rail systems as train journeys become an everyday grind.

Mind the gap

Intercity railways link cities within a radius of 100 km to 300 km. Metro trains generally cover an area of less than 50kms. Suburban railways operate in the gap between and are tidal with much higher passenger flows in rush hours. Trains move more slowly and stop more frequently than intercity trains, but are faster than metros and seen as more flexible in their scheduling.

Beijing has four suburban rail lines connecting downtown with the hinterland, but there is plenty of room for improvement in all areas. It takes only 25 minutes to travel from Liangxiang Station in Fangshan District to Beijing by train, in contrast to 50 minutes by metro, for the same fare. It’s only natural to take the train, but there are only two each morning, at 06:50 and 07:11. It is time-consuming to get in and out of the station, so despite the advantages, passenger flow is not high. The metro is always crowded.

In other parts of the world, suburban railways are a common way of getting to work. Tokyo and neighboring cities are home to over 30 million people. A long commute is normal. The metro covers only 300 km in central Tokyo. Suburban railways amount to more than 2,000 km. About 60 percent of the population live within 10 minutes walk of stations that connect eventually with metro lines. Rolling stock is compatible, so suburban and metro trains use the same rails. In China, metros and railways are entirely independent and do not interact at all. Suburban railways are unpopular.

ZHONG Zhangdui of Beijing Jiaotong University submitted a proposal to last year’s legislative sessions recommending integration of the current suburban rail system with metros and regular railways in terms of tickets, security checks, and schedules. The new guidelines go some way to addressing these issues.

Suburban rail is limited to journeys of less than 1 hour at speeds of less than 160 km per hour. Stations should be no less than 3 km apart with trains running at least every 10 minutes in rush hours. New suburban railways should link directly to metro lines.

Trains under strain

The Shanghai Jinshan Line is operating quite well. It connects downtown Shanghai and its suburban district Jinshan which sits 56 km in the south. Ticket costs less than 10 yuan (US$1.50) and trains run up to 160 km per hour. The railway operates different schedules on workdays and weekends, carrying 32 thousand passengers to work each day.

Beijing’s northeast ring railway is complete and will open soon. It links four stations in northeast Beijing’s densely inhabited communities to several metro lines and is poised to become an important part of Beijing’s urban transportation system.

“A metropolis extends far and deep to vast suburban areas. Our urbanization is not perfect and links between downtown and satellite towns are insufficient,” Zhong told Jiemian News. “Line 15 to Shunyi was supposed to be a suburban railway, but there was no clear guidance. The trip downtown would be much faster if it was a genuine suburban line.”

Intercity and suburban railways in Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei, the Yangtze Delta and Guangdong-Hongkong-Macau Greater Bay areas will be a major project in China's 14th Five-Year Plan (2021 to 2025) with combined mileages of 10,000 km. In December last year, Tianjin and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, at opposite ends of the country, published plans to build suburban railways. With these railways, the central city will diffuse its advantages to satellite towns and traffic congestion will be eased.

“Migrant workers, especially young ones, will never return to villages, but a city’s capacity is limited. Suburban railways extend the borders of cities,” said WANG Hao, of China Sustainable Transportation Center.

On the Beijing-Langfang railway, ill-famed for the three-hour commute above, only three trains run each morning. A return trip costs 56 yuan, much too high for everyday commuting with tedious check-in procedures. A proper suburban railway would dramatically save both time and money and hasten the development of areas along the line.

New model railway

“Imagine a place in Hebei close one hour’s rail ride to Beijing’s CBD with only half the housing price of the city proper. It must have great appeal,” said Wang.

At the end of last year, the NDRC pointed out the potential of these areas for integrated complexes of stations and towns. The NDRC has tightened approval of metro projects in recent years and suburban rail networks provide an alternative way to solve traffic problems.

“Smaller cities can’t afford metros, but suburban railways can meet demand,” said Zhong.

In addition to operation and construction, investors need to upgrade their thinking. Wang believes that shareholders and management structure are out of date: “Simply copying the mechanism of traditional railways will not do the job. If investors are required to assume either profits or losses, they will soon become more efficient.”

The State Council suggests a shareholding structure composed of municipalities, state-owned companies, private and foreign funds. Wang hopes suburban railways will gather housing, hotels, malls, hospitals and schools together. Constructors, operators and governments could all be shareholders, pushing them into beneficial common development.

“It will not be easy. Restrictions on land sale and tax boundaries are at least two of many issues that need attention,” said Wang.

During the 14th Five-Year Plan, there will be notable changes with local governments and corporates responsible for building and running suburban railways. The China State Railway Group (CSRG) will no longer be the one and only choice for construction and operation. On Nov 30 last year, Guangzhou-Qingyuan and Guangzhou East Ring intercity railways opened to passengers. Neither is operated by the CSRG.