China’s High-Speed Rail and the Global Push for Green Transit

Just over a year ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping took the world by surprise when he announced plans in a virtual address to the UN General Assembly for his country to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, three decades after it anticipates reaching peak emissions. Today, the eyes of the world are on the Scottish city of Glasgow, which is now preparing to host up to 20,000 world leaders, diplomats, businesspeople and climate experts for the UN’s “COP26,” the most high-profile international gathering to discuss global warming in recent years. As the world’s most populous country and largest carbon emitter, China will be high on the agenda.

A vital part of the global effort to mitigate climate change is the transportation sector. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, transport accounts for roughly 14% of combined global greenhouse gas emissions, following agriculture, energy production and industry. Transportation’s contribution to this sum could be greatly reduced by providing citizens with enough green alternatives to airplanes and gasoline-powered automobiles.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) calls rail “one of the most efficient transport modes,” accounting for just 3% of energy used by the transportation industry, despite carrying out 9% of long-distance passenger travel and 7% of freight.

By most measures, China has been leading the race to develop high-speed rail networks. According to an IEA report, the level of Chinese passengers using high-speed rail grew by 13% in 2019, more than double the growth rate of domestic air travel.

The expansion of the country’s national high-speed rail network has been taking place at a remarkable speed. In January, the country’s top railway organization announced that the combined length of the entire system had reached 37,900 km by the end of 2020 – this is almost twice the length calculated in 2015. The IEA report also points out that nearly two-thirds of global high speed rail lines are in China.

As other countries strive to reduce their own carbon footprints, China’s top state-owned rail company – China Railway Rolling Stock Corporation (CRRC), the world’s biggest manufacturer of its kind by revenue – has been taking on an increasing number of international projects and cooperative arrangements.

Behind the explosion of China’s high-speed rail system

In December 2009, China commenced its first long-distance high-speed rail service, linking the central city of Wuhan with the southern metropolis Guangzhou, covering the more than 1,000 km distance in just three hours. Since then, central planners in Beijing have poured staggering sums into expanding high-speed rail services across the country. Taking place in the wake of the global financial crisis, the initial development of China’s high-speed rail system helped to kickstart demand and get the economy moving again. At the same time, the building boom has caused the country’s top railway organizations to accrue significant levels of debt as profits continue to lag well behind construction costs.

So far, however, this does not appear to have repelled public investment. Authorities reportedly plan to spend a whopping 1 trillion yuan ($156.33 billion) during the 14th five-year economic planning period (2021-25) on expanding the rail network in the Yangtze River Delta.

There a several motivations for building such a vast and expensive system, including the creation of jobs, enhancing economic activity and efficiency, improving livelihoods, and reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions. According to the International Union of Railways, high-speed rail uses eight times less energy per passenger than airplanes and four times less than automobiles.

However, simply adding more high-speed rail lines is not always a silver bullet for achieving eco-friendly transport. The resources and construction needed to build a new track produces considerable levels of carbon pollution already, meaning that in order to achieve a net reduction, enough passengers must make the switch from airplanes and cars to offset the prior emissions. Chinese intercity high-speed rail services have had mixed success in this regard.

One study by Chinese scientists found that while the country’s most heavily-used line between Beijing and Shanghai has been quite effective in shifting passengers away from air travel, its overall carbon footprint had not been reduced because of the coal-based electricity generation needed to operate the train. Moreover, some services – such as the 1,776 km Lanzhou-Urumqi line spanning China’s sparsely-populated western regions – are unlikely to garner the passengers needed for it to break even on carbon emissions.

Recently, authorities implemented various measures to help shift the country away from using coal for its energy supply, but such attempts have been hindered in recent months due to the wide-ranging impacts of a power crunch. In the long term, however, plans for the further integration of wind and solar power into China’s electricity generation stand to significantly enhance the capacity of high-speed rail to bring about greener transit.

CRRC goes global

An interior view of CRRC’s recently-unveiled model to be used in the Los Angeles Metro. (Image: CRRC)

Accumulating massive investment over the course of the past decade, state-owned CRRC has now become the world’s largest manufacturer of rolling stock, as measured by revenue. This has not only allowed it to play a central role in the expansion of China’s own high-speed rail network, but also in various other countries aound the world.

This week, the first test drive for Tel Aviv’s new light rail, which uses cars constructed by CRRC, was announced by Israeli transit authorities. Earlier this year, the firm announced its agreement to set up a new production facility in Mexico that will provide up to 5000 jobs, deepening its engagement with the country’s growing public transportation system.

In the United States, CRRC has operated a subsidiary manufacturing facility in Springfield, Massachussets since 2014, providing a wide range of railway transportation equipment for the domestic market. In late July, the company unveiled new models to be implemented soon in the Los Angeles metro system.

The firm’s recent moves in the market come amid increasing hesitation by U.S. authorities regarding the use of Chinese-manufactured technology to construct domestic infrastructure, citing perceived threats to national security. Late 2019 saw an effort by lawmakers in Washington to deny CRRC and other Chinese firms the right to compete for public transportation contracts, but such attempts have not yet managed to put an end to the company’s operations in the U.S.

So far, CRRC’s status as the global leader in railway manufacturing has not been impacted. Earlier this year, the company reported 227.66 billion yuan in revenue in 2020 – a slight decline that the firm attributed to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, major international competitors, such as Canadian firm Bombardier Transportation and German firm Siemens Mobility, lag well behind.

While the Chinese high-speed rail network and the progress of massive state-owned entities such as CRRC offers huge potential in shifting domestic passengers away from automobiles and airplanes for long-distance travel, transportation represents just one piece of the global warming puzzle. China’s Special Representative on Climate Change Xie Zhenhua has voiced optimism: “We are confident that we will fully implement China’s goals and make greater contributions to global climate governance and post-COVID-19 green, low-carbon and high-quality recovery,” he said last month. Given the mammoth task ahead, only time will tell.