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Martha Lawrence: Guiyang-Guangzhou High-speed Rail benefiting all income groups

Martha Lawrence, Leader of the Railways Community of Practice

TansFORM is publishing a series of interviews with senior specialists from the World Bank, looking at China’s rapid development in the transport sector and the role the bank has played over a course of 30 years. They will share their insights on the experience and lessons China has learned.

My first mission in China was in 2014, and I was coming to the Guiyang-Guangzhou railway project. I was completely blown away by the scale of the project. It’s a huge, 13-billion-dollar project of which we're just a tiny bit of the financing. It goes through very difficult terrain full of tunnels and bridges and viaducts. For a railway specialist, it was just breathtaking.

When I first came, it was just a construction project. And by the time we finished, it was a high-speed railway line. It used to take 25 hours to go from Guiyang to Guangzhou. And now it takes four to five hours, so that's really transformational in terms of the access of people in Guiyang and Guilin and along the line to the larger economic activity in Guangzhou, as well as up and down the east coast of China.

I took a ride on the high-speed train myself. It's very modern, comfortable and fast. It was a transformational for me in the sense that I used to think high speed rail was just for rich people and rich countries. But I took the opportunity being on the train to talk to all of my fellow passengers, including migrant workers, students, pensioners who are taking vacation trips, and business people. A whole range of people were riding the train.

What we saw was a broad range of income levels taking the train, and somewhere around 40% were in a fairly low-income group. So, it confirmed my impression that in fact the train is priced so that it's a service that's available to all income levels in China.

We heard a story that after the Guiyang-Guangzhou high-speed railway line opened, in the following tourist season, several cities in Guizhou ran out of hotel rooms as there were so many visitors. The cities had to put together a program to match up people who are willing to open a bedroom in their homes as a bed and breakfast with tourists so that they could accommodate everyone.

That shows the railway helps to connect the east coast economic powerhouse of China with cities that are farther west and farther north. It gives these cities in the hinterland access to the economic activity that's in Guangzhou or Beijing. And vice versa, it gives people who are living in these big cities access to these other parts of China, which has brought tourism and potentially industries around clean air, clean water, vacation homes, things like that.

I think China’s high-speed railway was successful because it starts with having a strong planning discipline. Once there's a commitment to the project, it's carried through. There're not a lot of delays, like we see sometimes in other places that greatly add to the cost of the project.

There's also a very strong supply industry in China. The contractors are very capable. They know how to work. And on the China Railway side, the supervision is very effective. We see projects delivering on time and on budget with good quality. I don't know where anywhere else in the world that this is done. Also, there really has been a good fit between the transport demands of the country and the service that is being provided. There's good patronage of the service, that’s very important as well.

I think the insights that we get from um looking at the development of high speed rail in China is that you do need a fairly dense market where lots of people want to travel. What we saw in China is that you need high density to cover the costs, particularly to set a price for tickets that are accessible to everyone. In China, it takes about 40 million passengers a year to cover full cost. Now, there aren't many markets are that big in the world, but if you want to cover just the operating costs, you need a fairly large number of people traveling.

And you need appropriate distances. We found that the distance in which high speed rail is competitive is about 150 to 800 km, maybe up to 1200 km, it is still competitive with air. after that air transport takes over.

But the other thing I see is that if rail is to be competitive in countries that have high incomes or countries where incomes are rising, high speed is necessary, because people are not going to take a slow train for eight hours or ten hours. They'll take an airplane instead. You need to get them to their destinations in two or three hours by if you want people to travel by rail.