CHINA only opened its first metro line in 1969 in the capital Beijing, although foreigners were initially forbidden to use it. There was then an 11-year gap until the country's second metro line was completed when Tianjin opened its first line in 1980. Up to this time the bicycle was by far the most common form of transport in Chinese cities.
Once economic liberalisation got underway in the 1980s two more cities began to plan metros starting with Shanghai, which opened its first 6.6km section in May 1993, followed by Guangzhou with a 5km line in June 1997. While Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou set about developing large metro networks during the 1990s, other cities began to plan metros but without approval of the state which was probably daunted by the scale of investment this would require. In an attempt to stop cities planning new metro projects, the government issued an edict in October 2002 banning their construction except for schemes already underway. Nevertheless, some cities continued to work behind the scenes on their metro plans.
The ban didn't last long as the need to address the explosive growth of China's cities, increasing motorisation which rapidly killed off the use of bicycles in urban areas, and worsening pollution forced a fundamental rethink by the government which lifted the ban in 2004. Metro construction received further impetus with the awarding of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games to Beijing and World Expo 2010 to Shanghai.
Since then, vast sums have been invested in metro projects allowing Chinese cities to leapfrog ahead of their global counterparts. Beijing with a 16-line 434km metro and Shanghai with a 538.8km system of 14 lines now have by far the largest networks in the world usurping cities like New York (370km), Mexico City (226km), London (408km), Paris (215km), Madrid (224km), Moscow (325km), Seoul (327km) and Tokyo (304km). Even Guangzhou, with its 240.8km eight-line metro, now ranks among the world's top 11 systems.
The scale of construction in China is quite breathtaking and in another league compared with metro construction in other parts of the world. Most cities tend to build one line at a time or short extensions to existing lines due to the high cost of constructing metro lines in densely-populated urban areas and the engineering
resources required. Not so in China where a staggering 370km of new line was brought into operation last year. This year a further 490km of new lines will open. The biggest of these projects is in Nanjing where four new lines totalling 145.8km were due to open, although following an accident during construction, the opening of Line 3 has been postponed until 2015. Beijing is opening four extensions which will add 62.1km to its network, Wuxi opened its first 29.4km line in July and will inaugurate a second 26.3km line next month, while Chongqing will complete four extensions totalling 30.6km and Shanghai three totalling 38.2km.
Shenzhen, China's first and most successful special economic zone, which was established to the north of Hong Kong, illustrates the scale of development. Shenzhen has grown from a small fishing village when the SEZ was established in 1979 to a metropolis of around 10 million inhabitants, far outstripping its much older southern neighbour which has a population of 7.2 million. Shenzhen currently has a five-line metro totalling 178.9km but it is building another five lines which will almost double the size of the network between 2016 and 2018. Last year alone, Shenzhen invested $US 2.65bn in metro construction. In addition, construction has started of a separate light rail system in the northern district of Longhua.
Metro projects must be submitted to the National Development and Reform Commission for approval, and the number of projects receiving approval has increased dramatically since the Beijing Olympics in 2008. The following data about the approval of metro projects illustrates vividly the vast scale of metro construction in China:
• May 2009: approval granted for metro lines totalling 2100km in 19 cities with a total investment of Yuan 800bn ($US 130.3bn) for completion by 2015
• August 2009: the construction programme is expanded to 2259km of metro lines in 22 cities worth Yuan 882bn
• September 2012: another 25 metro projects worth Yuan 800bn are approved, and
• May 2013: projects in 35 cities totalling around 6000km representing an investment of Yuan 1.3 trillion are approved.
By the end of 2012, 17 Chinese cities excluding Hong Kong had metros in operation totalling 1980km. Yuan 1.16 trillion has been earmarked for metro construction in China between 2010 and 2015.
China also has the ability and resources to construct many very long lines at the same time. Metro lines ranging in length from 20 to 30km have been built in 19 cities simultaneously, and often within one or two years a second line of similar length is completed.
Metro construction is currently underway in 37 cities, four of which opened their first lines this year, and another three cities plan to start construction of their first metros this year. Nationally, 54 cities with a population of one million or more are planning to build metros although the actual number of cities in the planning phase is constantly changing. Cities usually plan to build at least two lines initially.
Even though the cities contribute large sums themselves to fund their metro projects, with government grants varying between 20 and 50%, investment on this scale means other financing models, such as public-private partnerships (PPP) and build, operate, transfer (BOT), are being used to fund some schemes.
Beijing was the first city to launch a PPP scheme for Line 4, which opened in September 2009. Hong Kong's MTR Corporation has a 49% stake in Beijing MTR, a three-way joint venture with Beijing Capital Group, which also has a 49% share, and Beijing Infrastructure Investment Company which holds the remaining 2%. MTR similarly has a 49% stake in a 10-year operate and maintain (O&M) concession for Beijing Metro's Daxing Line which opened in December 2010. In Shenzhen, MTR is the sole concessionaire in a 30-year BOT agreement for the Longhua Line which opened in 2011. MTR's latest PPP project is Line 14 in Beijing, which is again being implemented through Beijing MTR after it secured a 30-year O&M contract in November 2012.
Some cities split metro construction from operating the network. In Shanghai, two companies - Shanghai Shentong Group and Shanghai Metro Construction - are responsible for building the new lines, while the metro is operated by another two companies.
Despite the speed of construction, there has been a clear focus on station design with passenger-friendly facilities, and in some cases stations have been completed to quite a high standard, with signs provided in both Chinese and English. Underground stations have full-height platform-screen doors, while those at surface stations are around 1.5m high.
In Asia the terms light metro and light rail are often used to distinguish heavy metro lines from those which are essentially full metros but with either shorter or slightly smaller trains, and are mainly constructed above ground with only short sections of tunnel. Since 2000, stations on all such lines in China have been fitted with platform-screen doors, and older stations are being retrofitted.
Nevertheless, 15 Chinese cities have light rail projects most of which are already under construction and five of which are due to open this year. In Beijing and Shanghai light rail lines are being built in the outer suburbs to act as feeders for the metro.
Table 1 shows the current state of play regarding the operation, construction and planning of metros in Chinese cities. The information has been gathered from several sources including the Chinese Yearbook of Metro Systems 2012 published in 2013, updated from Chinese internet sources which are abundant in content, although most of the information is only available in Chinese. A lot of cross-referencing is required to ascertain that the data is correct and up-to-date, which often is not easy.
Some of the data regarding plans to expand the size of metro networks by around 2020 in cities such as Chengdu, Chongqing, Qingdao, Shenyang and Wuhan, appear very ambitious and are not fully fledged yet, while the data for construction up to 2018 is more accurate.
It is also difficult to ascertain the population of the megacities. Official figures refer to "permanent-declared" persons rather than statistics gleaned from a census. There is also a distinction between the population of the city and county. Nevertheless, the number of Chinese cities with more than 1 million inhabitants is expected to increase from 90 to 221 by 2020, of which 44 will exceed 4 million. There are now six megacities with a population exceeding 10 million.
It is clear that population growth and worsening road congestion and pollution will maintain the drive to construct more metro lines, as long as China can continue to provide the resources and funding needed to expand its urban rail networks.