CHINA has the world's largest high-speed network and it has reached this position in little over a decade. The high-speed programme started in 2003 with a 404km line between Qinhuangdao and Shenyang, which was designed for 250km/h. It rapidly gained momentum with the Mid-to-Long Term Railway Network Plan adopted in 2004 and updated in 2008, which set out the development strategy for the network up to 2020. The Beijing - Tianjin high-speed line, the first of a new generation of lines designed for 350km/h operation opened in August 2008.

By 2013, China had completed construction of a high-speed rail network of about 10,000 route-km, exceeding the high-speed network of the entire European Union and growth continues with a further 12,000 route-km currently under construction. In addition, China has built a number of new 200km/h passenger railways and 200km/h mixed traffic lines.

High-density corridors such as Beijing - Shanghai and Beijing - Guangzhou tend to be designed for 350km/h running, while 250km/h suffices for lines with more modest volumes. By the end of 2013, most of the metropolitan regions in China are either connected, or in the process of being connected, to lines with a maximum speed of 200km/h or above.

Services on high-speed lines are formed of eight or 16-car trains and a look at the current China Railway Corporation (CRC) timetable reveals there are 70-100 trains per day on the busiest routes with up to eight trains per direction per hour at peak times. Traffic density on such routes is estimated at about 20-30 million passengers.

On medium-density routes there are 40-50 trains per day with a mixture of fast and semi-fast services.

According to a report in the People's Railway Post in January, average seat occupancy is 70% and second-class fares range from $US 0.045 per km on 200-250km/h routes to $US 0.077 on higher-speed lines. This is three to four times the fare charged on conventional express trains but lower than or comparable with discounted air fares and, at the lower end, similar to intercity bus fares. By international standards Chinese high-speed fares are extremely low, being around a quarter to a fifth of the typical ticket price in other countries.

Construction costs

An analysis of the construction costs of the 27 high-speed lines in operation at the end of 2013 revealed substantial variations in unit cost, ranging from Yuan 94m ($US 15.3m) to Yuan 183m/km.

With a handful of exceptions, the unit cost of 250km/h lines was Yuan 70-169m/km. The weighted average unit cost was Yuan 129m/km for a 350km/h project and Yuan 87m/km for a 250km/h project.

These costs provide a general indication of construction cost levels but this data is only available in aggregate form at this point. Expenditures were incurred over different years, so costs may not be directly comparable, given the impact of inflation as well as fluctuations in the supply and demand for rail construction services. But they nonetheless provide a useful range of benchmarking values for new projects.China-table1

Table 1 shows the contribution of various elements to the total project cost for all Chinese high-speed rail projects supported by the World Bank. Civil works contribute about 50% of the cost while signalling, telecommunications and electrification each account for around 5% of the total. An analysis of the cost of building the 841km Shijiazhuang - Wuhan line indicates that the actual unit cost was about 5% below estimates.

Several factors including design speed, topography, meteorological conditions, land costs, and stations influence the cost of high-speed railway construction. Unit costs on the Beijing - Tianjin line were higher than usual at Yuan 183m/km because it included the cost of building two major stations at Beijing South and Tianjin, which also serve other lines.

The unit cost of Shanghai - Hangzhou high-speed line (Yuan 177m/km) was high because it included several major bridges and land acquisition and resettlement costs were high in this densely-populated region of eastern China. Viaducts are often preferred to embankments in China, even if they cost more to build, because they minimise resettlement and the use of fertile agricultural land as well as environmental impacts.

In the projects supported by the World Bank, the estimated cost of viaducts in China ranges from Yuan 57m to Yuan 73m/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. The span of viaduct beams has been standardised at 24m and 32m. Bridge beams are cast in temporary facilities along the route of the line and transported over a distance up to 8km by a special beam carrier vehicle. The beams are then launched over the viaduct columns by specially-designed equipment. The cost of a 32m-bridge beam ranges from Yuan 800,000 to Yuan 1m.

Slab track is also cast in temporary facilities. After project completion, the bridge beam and slab track casting facilities are dismantled and reinstalled at another site. The vacated land is systematically restored by relaying the site with the original top soil before being handed over to its owners for agricultural use.

Special bridges that cross large navigable rivers or that need to accommodate major topographic features like mountains are much more costly to construct, requiring more intensive design work and sophisticated construction techniques. Usually such bridges represent a small percentage of the total number of bridges. Projects that include a larger proportion of special bridges such as the Xijiang and Sixianjiao bridges tend to have a high unit cost.

Stations play a dual role as transport hubs and urban centres and many of them are urban landmarks that seek to reflect the local culture and heritage, while supporting urban expansion. Traffic volumes vary widely across stations and the size and cost of stations varies markedly with small stations (3000m2 station building) costing around Yuan 40m, while major stations, which are more akin to airport terminals, may cost up to Yuan 13bn. The cost of regular stations is generally included in the project cost and is of the order of 1-1.5% of the total project cost. Large stations are often constructed as independent projects and their costs are not always included in those of high-speed lines.

Architecturally-distinctive major stations are expensive to build and large, but they fill up rapidly during peak travel periods. Such stations have three to five levels and provide interchange facilities between rail, road and metro networks. For example Shanghai Hongqiao has interchange facilities for the airport and for a future maglev link. These stations seek to provide facilities that promote quick and comfortable transit for large volumes of traffic. Notable stations include: Beijing South (Yuan 6.3bn; 310,000m2), Wuhan (Yuan 4.1bn; 114,000m2), Guangzhou South (Yuan 13bn; 486,000m2) and Zhengzhou East (Yuan 9.5bn; 412,000m2).

While these are major investments, high-speed 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 mentioned above. Chinese high-speed lines with a maximum speed of 350km/h have a typical infrastructure unit cost of about Yuan 100-125m ($US 17-21m) per km, with a high ratio of viaducts and tunnels.

The cost of high-speed lines in Europe designed for operation at 300km/h or above is estimated to be $US 25-39m/km and as high as $US 52m/km in California (excluding land, rolling stock, and interest during construction). The unit cost for four high-speed lines currently under construction in France ranges from $US 24.8m to $US 35.2m.

It is therefore apparent that the cost of building high-speed lines in China is significantly lower than those in Europe, although the comparison is at best approximate considering differences in accounting and cost procedures. Aside from the lower cost of labour, several other factors are likely to have led to lower unit costs in China. At a programme level, the declaration of a credible medium-term plan for the construction of 10,000km of high-speed lines in China over a period of six to seven years energised the construction and equipment supply community to build capacity rapidly and adopt innovative techniques to take advantage of very high volumes of work.

china-bridgeThis has led to lower unit costs as a result of the development of multiple competitive local sources for construction - including earthworks, bridges, tunnels and rolling stock - that adopted mechanisation in construction and manufacturing. Furthermore, large volumes and the ability to amortise capital investment in high-cost construction equipment across a number of projects also helped to reduce costs.

Other factors include a relatively low cost of land acquisition and resettlement, localisation of the design and manufacture of goods and components as well as the standardisation of designs for embankments, track, viaducts, electrification, signalling and telecommunication systems. For example, the slab track manufacturing process was imported from Germany but the cost of the Chinese-made product is about a third lower than the German product as a result of large volumes and lower labour costs. The technology developed for construction of tunnels not only resulted in a low unit cost but also enabled tunnels to be constructed at a rate of 5-10m per day. High-speed tunnel construction costs in China are about $US 10-15m/km, a fraction of that in other countries. Tunnel costs are heavily influenced by geology and labour costs and, in the case of China, the latter has certainly helped to keep costs down.


China has accomplished a remarkable feat in building over 10,000km of high-speed lines in six to seven years at a unit cost that is lower than those of similar projects in other countries. The network operates with high traffic volumes on its core corridors, and with high levels of availability, and this has been accomplished at a cost which is at most two-thirds of high-speed rail in the rest of the world. Besides the lower cost of labour in China, the sheer scale of the programme is another possible reason for this because it allows standardisation of the design of construction elements, the development of innovative and competitive capacity for equipment manufacturing and construction and amortisation of the capital cost of construction equipment over a number of projects.