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‘Innovation and standardisation’ keep China’s high-speed rail costs low, says World Bank

The cost of high-speed rail (HSR) construction in China is one third lower than in other countries thanks to extensive planning, greater standardisation and the development of “innovative and competitive capacity” in the manufacturing process, a World Bank paper has said.21 Jul 2014

According to the paper, ‘High-speed railways in China: a look at construction costs’ (8-page / 768 KB PDF), by the end of 2013 China had built a HSR network of more than 10,000 route kilometres, “far exceeding that in any other country and larger than the network in the entire European Union”.

The paper said “major factors” influencing construction costs included the line design speed, topography along the alignment, weather conditions, land acquisition costs, use of viaducts instead of embankments and building major bridges across wide rivers.

The construction of ‘mega stations’, which “are frequently built as independent projects” with costs not always included in the HSR project cost, is another key factor, the paper said. Mega stations are traditionally built in the largest cities, and “tend to be large airport-type buildings, with close attention to architecture and local culture”.

Laying track on viaducts is often preferred in China to minimise resettlement and the use of fertile land as well as to reduce environmental impacts, the paper said. “The estimated cost of viaducts in China ranges from 57 million renminbi (CNY) to CNY 73m ($9m to $12m) per km for a double track line. Such costs are kept low through standardisation of the design and manufacturing process for casting and laying bridge beams on viaducts.”

Using figures from China’s ‘People’s Railway Post’, published in January 2014, the paper said the average seat occupancy is 70%. Second class HSR fares vary between $0.045 per km at 200 to 250 km per hour and $0.077 at 300 to 350 km/h. “This is three to four times that on conventional express trains, but this is lower or comparable to discounted air fares and, at the lower end, similar to intercity bus fares. This is about one fourth or one fifth of the fares applied in other HSR countries,” the paper said.

According to the paper: “These trains provide world-class quality of service and comfort. They have carried a large volume of passengers safely, except for one major accident in 2011 that caused about 40 fatalities, attributed to inadequate testing of a new design of signalling equipment, which lacked proper fail-safe features.”

Since 2006, the World Bank has provided financial and technical support for six railway projects in China with speeds of 200 km/h or above.

The bank said in terms of total costs for all projects it has supported in China, civil works contributed about 50% of the cost while signalling, communications and electrification each contributed about 5% of the cost.

The paper said: “HSR construction costs in China tend to be lower than in other countries. Based on experience with World Bank supported projects, the cost of railway construction is about 82% of the total project costs. China HSR, with a maximum speed of 350 km/h, has a typical infrastructure unit cost of about $17m to $21m per kilometre, with a high ratio of viaducts and tunnels. The cost of HSR construction in Europe, having design speed of 300 km/h or above is estimated to be of the order of $25m to $39m per km.”

Earlier this year China announced that foreign investors will have more opportunities to invest in Chinese state projects and state-owned enterprises, including those in the oil, transport and telecoms sectors, as the government pushes the development of a mixed-ownership economy.

According to an April 2014 report in the China Daily, China will invest more than $117 billion in its railway infrastructure this year.