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    Laying the Track for High-Speed Rail Towns

    China’s national train network has given rise to a number of new urban developments, but many are lacking in infrastructure.

    The high-speed rail (HSR) network in China is a large-scale transit system that has been greatly expanding regional accessibility and driving economic development. It has also given rise to a series of “high-speed rail towns,” which are newly urbanized areas that have sprung up around HSR stations.

    These new towns are expected to play a key role in the government’s ambitious national network plan — along with the railway lines, they will help improve regional accessibility and economic development. However, better location selection, more creative planning and design for new HSR towns, and more sophisticated institutional design to implement new town plans are essential to achieve the objectives of HSR development.

    In 2006, the State Council of the People’s Republic of China approved a national network plan that pledged the country would have over 120,000 kilometers of HSR lines by 2020 — in April 2015, the combined length of the world’s HSR lines was around 29,792 kilometers.

    Not only does the plan aim to connect China’s cities in a fast and reliable way, it also aims to reduce pollution by electrifying 50 to 60 percent of tracks, to separate passenger and freight train corridors, and to reach international HSR technological standards.

    Construction on China’s first HSR line — the one connecting Beijing and Shanghai — began in April 2006 and was fully operational by June 2011. The total length of the HSR line is 1,318 kilometers, and it basically runs parallel with the existing normal-speed Beijing-to-Shanghai line. The new line is elevated to support a transit speed of 350 kilometers per hour and passes through four provinces. In total, 23 stations have been set up along the rail.

    I conducted an empirical study in which I constructed a model of the Beijing-to-Shanghai HSR in order to examine its effects on urban development and identify significant factors influencing development of new HSR towns. According to my results, the impact of stations on existing urban settlements has not been significant, whereas stations constructed on the edges of existing urban settlements have given rise to many new HSR towns.

    The current shortest distance along the line from HSR station to urban spatial gravity center — a term referring to the center of an urban area — is 3.3 kilometers, while the longest distance is 24 kilometers. Twelve stations are located within urban areas, while 11 are located outside, far from the city centers.

    This is quite unlike the location of train stations in European and American cities, which are normally situated within the existing developed areas — sometimes even downtown.

    The location selection of the HSR stations was conducted between the central and local government. The central government’s criteria for selection were based on which areas would allow the fastest transportation avenues, where construction costs would be lowest, and where the least number of residents would have to be relocated. This normally equated to a location choice far removed from the centers of previously developed urban areas.

    However, during an in-depth interview, an official told me that the dialogue between the central government, provincial governments, and local governments was sometimes ineffectual. The central government’s railway ministry was the final authority on all railway matters in China, and central decisions did not generally take into account much of the input at lower administrative levels in small towns. There was also a lot of miscommunication among different departments at the local level, resulting in confusing and often contradictory feedback.

    All of the new HSR towns had precise development plans designed by the local governments, but the success of their implementation has varied. Although heavy urban development was a consequence in many of the towns, the degree to which this occurred has differed from place to place.

    Some of the rail towns have developed road networks and small finance and retail centers, while some are little more than a few public facilities and a road or two built by the local governments. According to my study, how developed these new towns have become is primarily based around station location, the financial capacity of the local government, and the proposed design of the new towns.

    The urban design plans were drawn up and carried out by local governments. Some have done very well, like Wuxi City, in eastern China’s Jiangsu province, which has an established town authority and a well-developed urban center that has attracted a lot of investment from local developers. However, many of the new towns remain underdeveloped, with small populations, poor infrastructure, and little-to-no real estate investment.

    The country’s train network is connecting people and bringing increased economic development to poorer regions. But as China continues to increase the rate at which it lays tracks, more planning will be needed to address the infrastructural problems of its new HSR towns.

    (Header image: A high-speed train passes by a construction site in Changchun, Jilin province, Dec. 30, 2010. Fang Xinwu/VCG)