Reducing Bottlenecks, Raising Rail Safety

Feature | 31 January 2009

As the PRC expands its rail network and adds high-speed trains, an ADB loan is helping upgrade technology and increase security

In the crowded Beijing West railway station, Huo Quanfu, a 36-year-old migrant worker from Henan province, is sitting on a pile of luggage. He has been coming to Beijing every year since 2005 to work with the crew maintaining the city's parks and gardens. Now he is returning to his hometown on the midnight train.

He is among millions of people throughout the People's Republic of China (PRC) who rely on trains for long-distance travel.

Over the past three decades, passenger volume on the railways has grown at an annual rate of 6.7% and topped 1 billion in 2007.

Rail is also the main mode of transport for freight. Freight traffic has been rising by an average of 5.3% a year and exceeded 3 billion tons in 2007.

The PRC's railways have the highest freight density in the world and second highest passenger transport volume after Japan. Their growth rates are putting great pressure on capacity, making the reduction of capacity bottlenecks a key goal.

Key to Growth

Railways stimulate balanced economic growth and efficiency. Transport links to more developed areas and improved transport access to inland provinces lead to direct employment and business opportunities. By creating jobs and incomegenerating activities for the poor, railways help reduce poverty. Access roads ensure that local farmers can use the railway to transport their products.

A review of three completed railway projects shows that GDP, per capita GDP, rural incomes, and average income per farmer all increased because of the improved access to markets, new jobs, reduced costs of travel, and cheaper goods. GDP increased in the first 3-5 years by 10-12% annually and by about 18% annually over 10 years after project construction in three ADB railway project areas.

Higher personal incomes and increased investments are directly related to the jobs created during the railway construction and to better transportation. For example, before the projects started, 46% of the people were living below the poverty line along the Guizhou-Shuibai railway, and 22% were living below it along the Shenmu-Yanan line. The number of poor people decreased by 54.2% over 5 years in the three counties traversed by the Guizhou-Shuibai railway. Along the Shenmu-Yanan railway, the incidence of poverty in the five counties and one district served by the line dropped by 40-80%.

Safety Issues

The government plans to extend and upgrade the rail network - which covers more than 78,000 kilometers (km) - as well as provide more high-speed trains. Along with this rapid expansion, it seeks to increase security and enhance safety.

The safety issue is a challenge as the trains encounter difficult operating conditions amid varying geological features as they crisscross the length and breadth of the country.

The Ministry of Railways wants to attract foreign technology and expertise to meet its needs. In 2007, ADB approved a $100 million loan to help the ministry bring in modern technology for responding quickly to emergencies, provide capacity building for handling emergencies more efficiently; and develop an institutional framework to achieve a quick, responsive, and efficient emergency rescue and restoration system.

As well as improving safety and reliability, the system's increased mobility - and reduced downtime - will help achieve higher productivity and rail-line capacity.

"This project is ADB's first stand-alone, sector-wide intervention to enhance railway safety on a network basis," says Manmohan Parkash, an ADB principal transport specialist. "The project will help improve the emergency management system by providing a quick, responsive rescue and restoration system."

Critical to Success

The project includes a capacity development program to lift staff skills critical for the success of the project.

A few serious train accidents have occurred in recent years that reflect the need for an upgraded safety management system. The worst accident in a decade occurred with a train collision in eastern Shandong province in April 2008, which killed 72 and injured 416. During an earthquake the following month, a 40-car freight train, which included 12 tankers full of gasoline, derailed inside a tunnel and caught fire.

A strengthened safety management system will include effective and speedy emergency rescue plans and the ability to distribute relief aid properly. It includes actions to avoid prolonged disruptions of the network.

Wu Zhanlin, who has worked in the railway sector for 28 years, leads a 45-person rescue crew at Fengtai Rescue Base that covers the Beijing area. "We have a strict system for operating rescue work, almost like that in the military," Wu says. The crew works in three shifts on a 24/7 basis.

Within 30 minutes of receiving an emergency call, the crew must be able to depart from the base with an 11-coach rescue train and two rescue cranes. An additional 17 rescue bases will be established across the country.

Because the speed of the rescue trains will increase from 100 km/hr to 120 km/hr, the coverage of each rescue station will be expanded from a 200-km to a 250-km radius. The existing 175 rescue stations will be upgraded and consolidated into 136 stations.

Wu says his base has carried out rescue missions more efficiently since receiving a new large-tonnage rescue crane. On average, the crane has reduced the time spent for rescues by 20% to 30%.

"This project will allow us to use modern facilities and human resources more efficiently to provide better rescue and restoration services," says Huang Rengao, deputy division chief from Ministry of Railways' Foreign Investment and Technical Import Center.

Even as rail capacity increases in the coming years, passengers like migrant worker Huo can expect to travel reliably, conveniently - and safely.