Yesterday,the first bullet train service,linking Beijing to the southern commercial hub of Guangzhou was officially launched.
Travelling at speeds of 300 kilometres an hour ... the bullet train is expected to cover the 2 thousand 298 kilometre route in less than 10 hours.
The project signals that China has not given up on its rail ambitions despite major setbacks.
Correspondent: Kanaha Sabapathy
Speaker: Dr Pradeep Taneja, Melbourne University
TANEJA: The whole program has been marred by corruption scandals, safety issues, the minister in charge of the project, the minister of railways, was fired from the job for corruption, senior engineer of the railways was also caught up in corruption scandals, plus the accident last year in the summer caused 40 deaths. So obviously the project has not been very smooth.
SABAPATHY: But have they addressed these issues since?
TANEJA: Well they said they have. I mean obviously corruption is not something that's going to be addressed overnight. I mean I think corruption in China generally is a systemic problem and that's not going to disappear. And railways where billions of dollars are being spent on the high speed railway network, corruption is bound to continue. I don't think they can deal with corruption. Safety is another issue because safety is largely, apparently I mean I'm not an engineer but safety is largely because of China's imported technology. The technology on which the high speed railway is based has been borrowed, copied and sort of imitated from other parts of the world, and therefore engineers tell me that there is no systematic Chinese technology in this, and that's been part of the problem. Apparently the accident last year was also a result of a signalling problem, so although officially they said the train was hit by lightning, but some others say it was because of inconsistent technologies being used in the project.
SABAPATHY: Yet it's been reported that one of China's ambitions is to actually compete with western companies like Germany's Siemens and Canada's Bombardier, to actually sell its railway technology overseas. So is this true, is that what China aims to do?
TANEJA: Well China certainly is looking at this, remember that this high speed railway project is a combination of three things; first it is about economic stimulus. I mean we saw four years ago Chinese government plough tens of billions of dollars into the high speed railways, and that is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. So first it's about economic stimulus, about making sure that China's economic growth stays above eight per cent. Secondly it is about nation building, it's about keeping China with technologies which will sustain China's economic growth. And thirdly it's about technology demonstration to other countries, particularly developing countries where China sees huge potential for this technology. So it's a combination of three things and I think the Chinese government is determined that this is one project which is important not only for national interests, but also for China's overall sort of foreign interests also.
SABAPATHY: Now this link, the Beijing-Guangzhou link, is very important in other ways too, because it links the north to the south and dissects the country into two. So for its own domestic development itself, how important is a route like this?
TANEJA: I think it's very important for China's national integration, north and south, obviously south of China, Guangdong province or Guangzhou the capital of Guangdong province where this train will travel from Beijing or between Beijing and Guangzhou, that has been the most dynamic, one of the most dynamic regions of China. It was the first regions of China opened by Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s. The first special economic zones were established in this province. So it's an important part of China, and obviously it's very close to Hong Kong, so this is going to contribute to China's national political and economic integration.
SABAPAHTY: Now China hopes to have 18-thousand kilometres of rail line by 2015. Is this too ambitious a project in such a short time?
TANEJA: I think the whole project has been very ambitious and that's why I think there've also been safety issues, apart from the technical issues that I mentioned earlier. And when you develop such high technology products in such high pace, there's always a risk that there may be serious safety issues, and this is one of the concerns for many of the critics of this program even within China who believe that China is moving too fast with the expansion of this program. And this is what even in terms of exporting this technology to other countries, governments in other countries are also watching this very closely, because the accident happened only last year in which 40 people died. So governments in developing countries, in Asia and Africa and even South America, who are particularly interested in this technology, they're also adopting a wait and see attitude, because they want to see the Chinese technology, the high speed technology run for a while to prove that it is safe before they would be able to commit to importing this technology from China.
SABAPATHY: Now what sort of pressure will this high speed rail system put on domestic airlines in China?
TANEJA: Well domestic airlines in China have expanded very rapidly, but profitability of domestic airlines is seriously being affected by this expansion of the high speed railway. Shanghai and Beijing used to be like Sydney and Melbourne, very important route, and now you can travel between Shanghai and Beijing in under five hours, I've done that, and it's an amazing ride, it's very comfortable and the time spent is almost the same as flying. So as prices come down further of high speed railway, we will see high speed trains actually taking a lot of the traffic away from air travel.