Cultural Heritage, Economy, History, Technology

China Express: the story of the Chinese railway

Millions of Chinese have travelled back home from cities to rural areas last week for the Spring Festival celebration, but there were not photos of long lines of traffic jams like those during Christmas in Europe or North America. The reason? Most people travelled by train for their annual trip. Not only is it a major way of transport within the country, the latest economic plan of China has also put a significant focus on building a vast railway network with neighbouring regions. Just to give you some perspectives, goods that previously need months to be transported between continents by ships, can now go between London and Beijing in only 14 days by rail. How did it get there? Railways in China does not have a very long history, but it bears witness to a fascinating story of a country that entered the modern age after millennia of feudal system, two world wars, a civil war, a cultural revolution, and currently an unprecedentedly ambitious development plan. When we dig deeper into it, we can see that the railway in China has always been intimately tied to the larger historical context. While a powerful agent of change in the country, the railway’s story also very much reflects what was going in within the country at that time.

A false start

The first section of train track in China was built right outside of Beijing city in 1865 by an English businessman for a demonstration to impress the Qing Court. It was unfortunately not received well and was soon torn down. Instead of the engine of progress, people saw in it a monster of cold, hard metal that destroyed Feng Shui. After a couple other false starts, it was not until 1881, almost 80 years after the steam engines was invented, when the first publicly funded railway service with steam-locomotive started to operate in China. Since then the Qing government had built more railway through major cities.

The opening of the short-lived Woosung Road, the first railway in China, between Shanghai and Wusong in 1876 Source:

A rollercoaster ride in early development

The fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911 and the outbreak of the First World War did not stop the national railway construction plan; in the two decades to follow, the Chinese government at that time continued to lay down over 3000km of railway tracks. The construction was halted however during the civil war and the Second World War, but soon recovered after the establishment of the PRC in 1949. Within the next decade, under the help of Japanese railway engineers and technicians, the network had expanded dramatically, and its basic structure was laid out. Yet again, just as many other industries at that time, the cultural revolution in the 60s means that progress almost stopped.

Shift in priorities in the 80s but a boom in the 2000

In the late 70s and early 80s, economic development in China had gone so fast its railway infrastructure was hardly catching up. The railway system became a significant way of transport and tickets was not easy to get. After the railway network had covered all major provinces except Qingzang, the government’s attention was turned to investment on other priorities, such as the quality of train services, and the strength of the train engines. Railway network expansion was not back on the agenda until the 90s and early 2000s, when it was decided the plan was to reach the west. In 2006, the completion of the Qinghai Line to reach the High Tibetan Plateau, all the way to Lhasa, marked a major milestone in technological and economic development in China. Now in 2019, under the One Belt One Road plan, China has the ambition to expand the new highspeed railway to South East Asia and build closer ties with Europe. It is unsure what the new railway projects will bring, but certainly a lot of changes will happen because of it in the economies, in societies and communities, and in the politics of the countries along the route. On a lighter note, perhaps not long in the future, Chinese people in Europe can also take this more sustainable mode of transportation to visit their hometown during Spring Festival!

The Qinghai High Plateau Railway, opened in 2006

Sources and further reading: X Xue, F Schmid and R A Smith, An introduction to China’s rail transport Part 1: history, present and future of China’s railways, Journal of Rail and Rapid Transit, 2002, Vol 216 (F) pp.153-163