WITH more than 170 cities now home to more than one million inhabitants, China's rapid transformation from a country of rural dwellers to urbanites over the last 35 years is quite staggering. At present 50% of the population of 1.4 billion live in cities, compared with 18% in 1978, and this is expected to rise to 70% by 2030.

Inevitably an urban population, and modern cities, require efficient transport systems to function effectively. China's metro construction boom has been well-documented in IRJ in recent years, with 54 cities with a population of one million or more planning to construct metros, and work already underway in 40 cities across the country. Indeed around 6000km of metro lines are currently under construction, and Beijing with a 16-line 434km metro and Shanghai with a 14-line 538km system, now have the two largest networks in the world.

Shenyang 2 4Despite the unprecedented pace of metro construction, buses remain the main form of public transport in cities across China. In some megacities such as Beijing and Shanghai, buses provide critical links to the metro network, and in provincial capitals like Shenyang, which has 8.1 million inhabitants, and Zhengzhou, with 8.6 million, they are the primary form of public transport despite the presence of metros, albeit limited networks. In other cities which do not yet operate any kind of metro service, the bus is the sole source of public transport.

As urban populations continue to expand, nearly every medium-sized city is experiencing the emergence of development areas known as "New District" or "New Town," which are often situated outside of the existing city perimeters and a long distance from, and without the connections to, the traditional city centre.

This is inevitably putting greater pressure on transport planners to deliver public transport networks that meet current and future demand and ease the pressure on roads which are already choked with cars. While preferred, metros are expensive and time-consuming pieces of infrastructure to build, even with China's rapid construction rates. They are also expensive to operate when they do come online, with many Chinese systems now running at a loss. Officials, particularly in small and medium-sized cities are consequently searching for more affordable solutions to solve their transport problems, and in particular to connect these new and growing outlying areas.

Step forward light rail systems, the construction costs of which are 20-30% of a metro, with a similar wave of construction and development now underway across China.

At the end of 2014, eight Chinese cities operated light rail networks, with a cumulative distance of 192.6km, and several cities are on course to open their first lines in 2015. Plans are now in place to develop more than 2000km of lines by 2020 and up to 4000km of lines by 2050. But with 319km of light rail infrastructure currently under construction, and 1835km already in the design phase, this number is likely to be out of date very soon.

The following is an insight into some of the highlights of existing services and current and planned light rail developments in cities across China.

Beijing: two separate networks are currently under construction, and operations on the city's first light rail line in the northwest of the city at Bagou are expected to start by the end of 2015 following a delay to the planned commissioning date of May. Here the light rail line will connect metro Line 10, an outer ring line, with the Fragrant Hills scenic area. Further lines are planned in the Daxing District, where a 76km commuter light rail network will serve the district's Yizhuang Town, which is currently a major focus of Beijing's urban development.

Shanghai: currently the 9.8km line from Zhangjing Hi-Tech Park station, an interchange with Shanghai metro Line 2, to Heqing Town is the city's only operational light rail line. It utilises a rubber-tyred solution supplied by Translohr, France, and opened on January 1 2010. However, the city is currently developing three further networks.

In the suburb of Songjiang, which has a population of 1.6 million, a 90km network is planned. The first phase is already under construction and comprises two lines totalling 31km with 42 stations serving the southwest of Shanghai. The lines will be served by a fleet of 30 low-floor LRVs supplied by a joint venture of Alstom and Shanghai Rail Traffic Equipment Development Company (Satco) and are based on Alstom's Citadis platform. The lines are expected to carry up to 173,000 passengers per day when they open in 2017. Four further lines will be built up to 2020 to connect Songjiang city, which has a population of 500,000 with the surrounding area as well as Shanghai metro lines 9, 12 and 22.

In the Qingpu district, which had a population of 1.1 million in the 2010 census, design is underway of a 5.2km northern line with 12 stations and 9.2km southern line with 18 stations which will serve the core-area. In addition, in the Xuhui district, which is situated in the centre of the city, a 13km line will be built along the west bank of the Huangpu River between Nanpu Bridge and Xupu Bridge. Construction is expected to start in 2017.

Tianjin: located to the southeast of Beijing, the central government has strongly supported Tianjin's development in the past decade, including the city's Binhai New Area, which is a major focus of recent urban development. Tianjin Economic-Technological Development Area (Teda) is served by a 7.8km rubber-tyred Translohr system, which began operating in 2004, running from Teda metro station to north of College District.

Shenyang: a 55km network of three lines opened on August 15 2013, in time for the start of the 2013 China National Games. Line 1 runs for 18.7km from Xinglongda Aolai to Exhibition Center, Line 2 for 15km from Xinglongda Aolai to Taoxian Airport, and Line 5 for 21.1km from Olympic Centre to Shenfu Xincheng. A joint venture between the city of Shenyang, which holds a 51% stake, and French operators RATP Dev and Transdev, which hold 49%, is operating the network, with the initial three-year contract valued at e41m. Changchun Railway Vehicles Company supplied two different types of rolling stock for the lines: 70% low-floor, 28.8m-long LRVs which have capacity for 300 passengers, and 100% low floor, 34.4m-long LRVs with capacity for 360 passengers.

Testing on Line 3, a 15.1km link from Baitia Avenue to 21st Century Mansion, construction of which began at the same time as the other three lines, is underway although it is not clear when this will open. Five further lines are planned for the city that will eventually create a 140km network. Each of the lines will serve Hunna District, Shenyang's urban development area.

Future networks

Zhengzhou: work is underway to develop a massive 544km light rail network in the capital city of the Henan province up to 2050. Henan provincial government announced in January that construction would begin on the first three lines in 2015 with Yuan 12.3bn ($US 1.98bn) allocated towards their development; the West Plains route would receive Yuan 4.6bn, the City Line Yuan 3.1bn, and the East Line Yuan 4.6bn. The government said that the light rail lines would complement Zhengzhou metro lines 1, 2 and 3, and are favoured over further metro expansion due to a cost of Yuan 100m per km, compared with Yuan 570m for 1km of metro. In total Zhengzhou is aiming to construct 10 lines up to 2020 and a further 21 lines up to 2030. In total the city is planning to build a 37-line network.

Lhasa: three lines are planned in Tibet´s capital. An environmental study was finished in 2014 for the 33km Line 1, which will include five bridges across Lhasa River tributaries. Design is proceeding for the other two lines which will form a 63.9km network.

Wuhan: construction is underway on the city's first 20km line, which will serve the Wuhan Economic and Technological Development Zone. The line has 25 stations and operations are expected to start in 2016 following a Yuan 2.985bn investment. In total Wuhan is planning to build a 214km 14-line network serving several city districts.

Hefei: operations are due to start in late summer on Hefei's inaugural tram line, an 11.3km link which has 19 stations and runs just north of the city centre from 2nd Ring Road station east to Zhong Younfang station. The project has involved converting the old Huainan railway for light rail operation. An extension of this route is planned while the city is aiming to develop a 109.7km network.

Chengdu: construction commenced on the city's first light rail project, the 9.62km Yizhou Avenue demonstration project, in February. The line consists of an 8.71km at-grade section and a 0.91km elevated segment with 14 at grade and two elevated stations. The line is expected to open in 2017, with a further 12.7km extension planned. The city also has plans for two further light rail lines taking the network to 65km by 2020. This includes the 36.6km Line 2, which runs for 27.7km from the main railway station to Pixian West, and includes an 8.9km branch line from Tianhe Road to the Venetian Institute of Technology. It will also interchange with metro lines 2 and 6.

Shenzhen: following several delays, construction is expected to start this year on an 11.9km light rail line serving the Longhua district of the city. The line comprises a 9.2km section from Longhua station on metro Line 4, following the metro as far as Qinghu. The line then continues north along Meilong Avenue and Dahe Road to Huanguan South Road, where a 2.7km branch to Yuangang diverges. The line continues north along Dahe Road, serving Jinxiang Industrial Park before terminating at an interchange with the northern extension of metro Line 4 in Guanlan. Shenzhen Metro Group and China Railway Construction Investment Group secured the contract to carry out construction of the line on July 15 under a build-operate-transfer PPP model, the first for a Chinese light rail project, following a 10-month tender process. The contract includes a 20-year concession to operate the line, construction of which is expected to be completed in 2016. This is the first phase of a 170km-network of 10 light rail lines that will serve Shenzhen, Longgang, Pingshan, Bao'an, and Guangming.

Huai'an: test operations started in May on Huai'an's first light rail line, the 20.3km link from City Stadium to the Chuzhou district, construction of which started in December 2013. The line is served by a fleet of 22 LRVs and is entirely catenary-free. The project cost an estimated Yuan 3.5bn to implement. A date for the start of operation has yet to be confirmed following a dispute over the fare structure for the line.

Zhuhai: trial operations on Zhuhai's first line, an 8.9km link from Shangzhong to Haitian Park, commenced in November 2014, and the line was set to officially open in May. The line is entirely catenary-free owing to the prevalence of typhoons in the region. AnsaldoBreda supplied the first two Sirio bidirectional five-section low-floor LRVs for the line, with CNR Dalian assembling the remaining eight. The LRVs utilise Tramwave ground power supply technology developed by Ansaldo STS and was supplied by China Tramway Corporation, a joint venture of CNR Dalian and Taiwan General Resources Corporation. The southern Chinese city bordering Macao plans to construct eight lines to develop a network of 147.3km. A 10.2km southern branch line will form phase two of the project, and Line 2 is planned.

Suzhou: Suzhou New District Tram Company began operating services on the 18.1km line from Suzhou Amusement Land to Long Kang Road on October 26 2014. The line has seven stations, operates on dedicated tracks and is situated entirely within in the Gaoxin Qu urban development area, which covers 52km² and is located 5km west of Suzhou in Jiangsu province, on the banks of Taihu Lake. The line is again served by a fleet of LRVs manufactured by CSR Nanjing Puzhen and Bombardier and based on the latter's Flexity 2. The five-section, bidirectional vehicles are 32.5m long and 2.65m wide.

This line is the first of six planned for the city in a network that will eventually reach 116km. Construction of Line 2, an 18km line which starts at Wen Chang Road, an interchange with metro Line 3, started in summer 2014 and is expected to open in the first half of 2017. Construction of the 9km Line 3, which will connect with lines 1 and 2 at Long Kang Road, is expected to commence by the end of the year. Nanjing Puzhen SR Rail Transport is supplying LRVs for Line 2.

Nanjing: The Hexi Tram, a 7.7km line from Olympic Stadium to Qinxin Road began operating on August 1 2014, shortly before the opening of the 2014 Youth Olympics. Catenary is installed on only 10% of the route with the four LRVs supplied by CSR Nanjing Puzhen Rolling Stock and Bombardier, which are based on Bombardier's Flexity 2 design, utilising its Primove Li-Ion battery system. This system recharges the batteries from the catenary at stops and during acceleration. A further seven vehicles will enter service on the Qilin Tram, a 9.1km line from Maqun to Wangwuzhuang, which is due to open this year.