China’s Proposed Transcontinental Rail Project

The Chinese leadership knows how to think big — which is more than what one can say about the Indian leadership, which one must remember has been mainly from the Congress party led by the Nehru-Gandhi Dynasty. One case in point is how big the Chinese leaders think about railways.

The Chinese are significantly ahead of India both in qualitative and quantitative terms regarding railways. In 2004, China logged 363 billion passenger-kms, compared to Japan’s 396 and India’s 316 billion passenger-kms. (Source.) An item in today’s The Hindu reports:

In December, China opened what it described as the world’s fastest rail link, between Wuhan and southern Guangzhou, where a 350 kmph-speed train covers the 1,068 km journey in three hours, down from 10.5 hours. By 2012, China will have opened 42 high-speed lines, covering 13,000 km of its total railway coverage of 110,000 km. When completed, China’s will be the world’s largest high-speed railway network.

Compare China’s 350 kmph train to India’s premier Rajdhani trains which do an average of 70 kmph.

Not content with an amazing domestic rail network, China’s leaders are thinking of a 17-country transcontinental rail project.

China has finally reached agreements with several Central Asian countries and given the green signal to its ambitious pan-Asian high-speed rail link, which envisages connecting cities in China to Central Asia, Iran, Europe, Russia and Singapore.

Of course, the Chinese are not doing this for the fun of playing with railways. They are thinking ahead about energy.

When completed, the plan will give China unprecedented access to energy resources in many of these countries.

A spokesperson at the Ministry of Railways told the official Global Times newspaper on Friday that the Chinese government has initiated talks with some of the 17 countries involved in the project. China will bear the brunt of the cost of building the high-speed rail lines in many of the countries involved, but will in return get access to energy resources in a proposed “resources for technology” arrangement, the Global Times reported.

One of China’s leading railways consultant is quoted as saying:

“India is a relatively small country with a huge population. It will be too costly to build highways for India, so our high-speed rail link project will improve transportation efficiency and resources.”

Now where have I heard something similar before? Was it one of India’s railway ministers in the last 60 years? Nope. I think it was yours truly on this blog. From “The Integrated Rail Transportation System — Revisited” July 2005:

To achieve greater production and productive efficiency, an efficient transportation system is not optional but mandatory. Without one, the economy cannot achieve productive efficiency.

The transportation system of an economy as geographically large, as densely populated, and as resource constrained as India’s, has to have as its backbone a rail transportation system.

Roads transportation is not an option for India for a number of obvious reasons. Cars and fossil fuels are expensive. Very efficient alternative fuel cars are even more expensive. With 17 percent of the world’s population and 2 percent of the world’s land area, we cannot afford the luxury of high speed expressways the way that the US can. We have to be more fuel efficient than the US because it is not even theoretically possible to emulate the US with its automobile/airlines system. The US appropriates approximately a quarter of the world’s total energy use with only about five percent of the world’s population. To reach US standards of energy use per capita, India would have to increase its energy consumption 25-fold. (NOTE: all figures in this piece are approximate. The exact figures will not substantially alter the argument.)

To put it another way, India would have to use four times the total amount of energy currently consumed by the entire world. At present, India has to import over half of its fossil fuel needs and pays an unaffordable amount for it. India’s economy cannot be sustained on imported fuel. From here flows the case for solar energy, which we will not dwell on right now.

The same argument as above applies with even greater force when air transport is considered as the backbone of a national transportation system. Only a very insignificant percentage of Indians can afford to fly. By afford I do not merely mean individual capacity to pay. The system itself cannot accomodate it. You cannot have 75,000 daily flights serving India’s billion people, which is what you would need to match the US’s air transportation system around daily 30,000 flights serving around 0.3 billion Americans.

A bit of arithmetic is all that is needed to expose the underlying reality that we don’t have the option of having road or air as the backbone of India’s transportation system. We not only cannot afford the fuel (source constraint), but we cannot also afford the pollution (sink constraint) of 700 million cars and 20,000 airliners spewing exhaust — as would be required to match the US on a per capita basis.

Rail transportation is of particular interest to me because it is critically important for India’s development. I think that India’s leadership — which boils down to one particular family and one particular party — is really not interested in India’s development. They are more interested in hanging on to power, even if it means that India will continue to sink further into the morass that they created for India.

India is falling behind. In Feb 2007, in “Trains and the Transportation System” I wrote:

You wouldn’t believe it but it seems that in the early 1990s, India was ahead of China in route kilometer per capita and total route kilometer. In the decade starting 1992, China invested US$85 billion and jumped so far ahead of India that it is unlikely that India will ever catch up with China. India invested only US$17.3 billion in the same period. India’s route kilometer grew by ONE percent and China’s grew by 24 percent.

The sad part is that when I bring this comparison of India with China, I am told by some, “But India is a democracy.” So friggin’ what? Since when is it the rule that having a democratic system condemns a nation to be backward and poor? Why is it that well-off Indians explain away India’s appalling poverty on “democracy”?

If you have to explain away all failures of leadership of your country by saying “but we are a democracy”, you might be a third world country.

Author: Atanu Dey


16 thoughts on “China’s Proposed Transcontinental Rail Project”

  1. Not only in raiwalys but in every aspect of economy we are way behind china.
    It is extremely sad that we are using democracy (which anyway is flawed and Hereditary) as an excsue for all our failures – poor governance, high level of illiteracy , never ending poverty etc. etc. – all these ills are squarely blamed on democracy, and we the people of this country accept this without any qualms.


  2. It is definitely easier to organize large infrastructure projects when you have a stable government and don’t have to worry about fighting elections every 5 years. Most of these large scale projects yield tangible results only in 10 to 20 years of time. The attention span of voters is very short, and they vote only on the basis of how things have improved in the past few months. So what all political parties do when they are in the government is to shower the voters with tax-breaks and other goodies just before elections..

    It has become very predictable now. We can forget about large scale infrastructural projects coming out of central Indian government. Except things which are immediately visible like roadways. But no railways, no huge ports, no solid telecommunication infrastructure, no decent investment in primary education, no money for research in fundamental sciences and mathematics.. The list goes on and on.

    In my opinion, the only way to fix this is to have a truly democratic vote on these issues, and not leave it to turntable politicians who keep going merry-go-round every 5 years. But voting requires comprehensive understanding of the concerned issues, and shouldn’t be given to every Tom, Dick and Harry. For a start, the Indian government can open a web portal where all registered university graduates and government employees can vote on infrastructure projects. Based on the projects of top priority on such a website, the politicians can start passing the bills into the parliament for discussion and vote. This is the only way to make democracy functional and connected to the people in a country like India.

    What is the chance of this happening in our lifetimes ? 1% ? Even lower ?


  3. Atanu,

    I believe Chinese announcement is more of a fancy preemptive announcement to show their prowess. But I love this as it is a wake-up call for India. India would not have done even this much but for the peer pressure from China.

    It is pathetic to see the government floundering on the Infrastructure front. Here are some examples:

    a) Interlinking of rivers or atleaset regional grids has been given a deep burial

    b) Railways was put into coma stage by Lalu and now by Mamta. There is hardly any price increase in second-class rail tickets in the past eight years while the inflation should have doubled the cost by two times.

    c) Road development (NHDP) which started as a brain child of BJP government did reasonably well under Major General BC Khanduri as minister (he was straight forward but the officials were corrupt and delayed the projects to some extent). TR Baalu (UPA I) was busy collecting money (and digging Sethu Samudram Canal – economic and ecological disaster but gave him good money) and did just half of the roads done by BJP. But he never failed to throw blatant lies on road project statistics (wonder why no one contested his lies).
    UPA II with Kamal Nath is great in doing TV interviews and press love him. He talks about 20 KM / day vs 2 KM / Day in UPA I. But he has hardly done anything in the last few months and I understand he is busy calculating his ROI and tweaking the deal structures.

    d) Finally, It is not impossible to modernise Indian Railways in 15 years and make it the best in the world and we have the technical and financial resources to make it economically viable. And Private sector is ready. But our politicians are busy calculating their ROI and will do only what they think is favourable to them.

    It is all our Karma! However we could consider having a vigilant forum that could get data from government (thro’ RTI) and prove all ill doings of government and shape the policies to some extent.

    Besides, I also wonder how China sustaining their growth. Ofcourse there are predictions that China could collapse / implode due to their over-leverage. Could you pl. write on this.


  4. As long as mainstream-media like NDTV etc get orgasmic discussing Modi, Gujrat, Communalism, reservations and Dalit activisim, India shall and will stay a third world country (True Atanu style! ;))

    Media doesn’t discuss these economic issues (except for, may be price rise) as much as they discuss “silly” political and social issues. Isn’t this a pitiful state though media had “complete” freedom for the past 60 yrs??


  5. This is awesome. China is really working hard to reach its aim. However I do detest the lack of freedom in China. But then again I doubt if they would have been able to achive all of this with democracy?


  6. which one must remember has been mainly from the Congress party led by the Nehru-Gandhi Dynasty

    Well three generation of these leaders were college drop outs. I guess they give a “drop out” vision for the nation. Is it a wonder that India houses the largest number of illiterates in the world when their Congress Party leaders do not even have go attend college to rule them? In America people protested Kennedy’s daughter for governor as she was not qualified, but she went to college and is a lawyer at least…In India someone like her would have been an instant star without question judging from the criteria for leadership in the Congress party!
    You know its not the leaders, its the sheep who elect them, and Indians seems the most sheep like people to rule….


  7. Well three generation of these leaders were college drop outs. I guess such people give a “drop out” vision for the nation. Is it a wonder that India houses the largest number of illiterates in the world when the Congress Party leaders do not even have to attend college to rule Indians and make laws for them? In America people protested Kennedy’s daughter for Governor saying she was not qualified, but she went to college and is a lawyer at least…In India someone like her would have been an instant star without question judging from the criteria for leadership in the Congress party!
    You know its not the leaders, its the sheep who elect them, and Indians seem the most sheep-like people to rule over….


  8. I always get angry when I see Indians in denial of China’s rise–China might have its share of problems but its doing far better than India at this point, the masses seem healthier, better fed, and altogether better educated than Indians. You don’t see begging on the streets and people peeing and pooing all over at least like in India! The masses certainly seem far less abject than India…which is sad because the Chinese started worse off than India initially. Again one has Congress misrule to blame again; one really wonders if Indians are capable of self-rule…


  9. Larissa, I totally agree. More so, we should be happy that a billion people are lifting themselves out of poverty (with out help from outside). I mean, they are people, right? If we wish China’s demise, then we ultimately hope for the continuing misery of her people.


  10. I don’t think that Indian railway is not commendable, while it sure can be better in a lot of ways and is quite far from being the world’s best. We have the world’s second highest passenger-km (after China) and fourth longest rail route (after China).

    “Resources for technology”? That’s what they said when they sold the oppressive Sudan regime with arms for oil and contributed to the Darfur crisis. Again, they want oil from Iran and they are ready to support their controversial nuclear program. And they’re afraid and paranoid to ship it through the Indian ocean. Their energy security plan sounds more like build pipelines and rails to third world countries and provide them with technology no matter what they’re going to do with it. Not that hard work and intelligent policies didn’t play a part in their recent rise, but there’s a controversial flip-side to all these. Compared to this, India has a reputation for being responsible and peace loving.

    Sure, we don’t have a train that rips through air at 350 kmph. But at least we won’t covertly drive away thousands of poor people from Delhi when Olympics happens in India.


  11. Sure, we don’t have a train that rips through air at 350 kmph. But at least we won’t covertly drive away thousands of poor people from Delhi when Olympics happens in India.

    Oh how great! India shows off its naked poverty, housing the largest number of poor, so its better? Housing such large numbers of poor is a national shame. And regarding the games that are approaching, Indians were thinking to plant very fast growing bamboo trees to hide the shabbiness and slums, so don’t see how they are better than the Chinese in this respect. So I don’t get what you are saying, unless you think having the largest numbers of poor and illiterates is something to be proud of or having the largest population of people is something to be proud of…I guess the common thinking is that since India is a democracy, all of the nastiness that has resulted in 60 years of misrule including a fourfold increase in population is something to be proud of….


  12. However Indians may deny it, China is basically ahead of India in everything despite the system of governance. The masses are less abject and better fed despite the regime and the masses are better educated. And India has a democracy of illiterates and is a mediocre country. It does not produce any name brands–its not known for anything special these days other than its poverty and large population….I had a relative who visited China–he became very depressed. He said he thought they very far ahead in everything. And you know what–it was China who was known for its large population and poverty. But they did something about it, as it was intolerable to them. India is far worse off today than at independence in most ways…It had a chance for correct governance but got stuck with Congress. So it has something of a farce called democracy.
    Regarding the high speed rail in China, not even the USA has high speed railways.
    The Chinese system might be brutal, but they now how to survive and people have started to respect them…


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