No new subway lines but other urban transit solutions are available

The government will only approve new lines in large cities with high projected ridership. Commuter rails and trams are cheaper, but are not without caveats.

Photo from CFP

Photo from CFP



Last month, residents in the city of Weifang in Shandong Province, population 9.4 million, asked city officials for a subway line, and they were told the central government had stopped approving new subway lines. Earlier in May, people in Hunan were told the same thing. No new subways for cities that don’t already have one, if they can’t pass a strict test.

Underground, over the hill

China built more than 4,800 kilometers of subway in the 2010s, bringing its total network to 6,000 kilometers, more than Europe and North America combined. But since then, the government dampened the construction fervor to prevent runaway debt. A document issued in 2018 by National Development and Reform Commission mandated that new subway lines can only be built in cities with more than 3 million people, at least 300 billion yuan (US$45 billion) of annual GDP, and more than 30 billion yuan of public budget a year. For light rail, the thresholds are half as high. There are also requirements for expected passenger numbers.

Last year, the government approved new subway lines in only three cities – Foshan, Qingdao and Wuxi. No new lines have been approved this year so far, although two cities were allowed to upgrade their existing blueprints. Suzhou will extend 137-kilometer Phase III by another 20 kilometers, and Dongguan will bury a longer stretch underground than planned.

The government requires new subway lines to have at least 7,000 riders per kilometer per day (4,000 for light rails) upon opening. To put the number in context, Shenzhen Metro, the busiest system in China, has 14,200 riders per kilometer per day. Shanghai Metro, the largest in the country, has 12,800 riders per kilometer per day. Only seven cities in the entire country meet the threshold, most having had subways for decades.

Overland, under consideration 

Even the largest and busiest systems are subsidized since tickets can’t cover operating costs. Beijing Subway received 21.4 billion yuan last year. Suzhou handed out more than 6 billion yuan. Remarkably, Shenzhen and Guangzhou needed less than 200 million yuan in subsidies, but only because the operating companies were able to supplement their incomes through real estate development.

The central government encourages commuter rails, which can reach farther and are much cheaper to build. Some cities, such as Nanjing, have commuter rails as extensions to their subway systems. Some smaller cities, such as Wenzhou, have opted for commuter rail only. The most recent project approved is a 71-kilometer line that connects Deyang with Chengdu in Sichuan Province, budgeted at 400 million yuan per kilometer. Chengdu Metro Phase IV cost 746 million yuan per kilometer.

The government says commuter rails should “run like buses.” A design guideline issued last year says trains should run at 15-minute intervals (10 minutes during peak hours) or more frequently, and that transfers between subways, commuter rails, and the national railroad should be easy.

Cities and companies have also been trying subway alternatives including trams and elevated railways in less busy areas. Chengdu and Wuhan both have sky trains under construction. Car maker BYD has developed a low-cost, low-noise rubber-tired tram.

From bad to worse

ZHONG Zhang, a professor at Beijing Jiaotong University, says cities should weigh the benefits and costs of public transportation and decide what works the best. Subways are good for dense urban cores where land is scarce and expensive, while smaller cities should be free to build above-ground rails.

LIU Qian, general manager at China Railway Engineering Design and Consulting Group, says cities should think beyond the rail. Urban railways, often seen as a cheaper alternative to subways in lower-density areas, can exacerbate rather than solve congestion. Zhuhai in Guangdong Province decommissioned a 2.6-billion-yuan tram system after only three years of use due to poor construction quality and rampant delays. Buses, on the other hand, can work wonders if properly managed.