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China’s Subway Construction Frenzy

So many lines, so many cities, so little time


Beijing sets on opening up a new line this month, Line 14, and complete the extension of the last 2.4 kilometers of Line 10. The city also plans to build a 40-km rail transit line to connect Beijing’s new airport in Daxing district to downtown Beijing. Shanghai is also preparing for its Line 11 and Line 16, in addition to its current efforts to split Line 3 and 4. Aside from the two metropolitan cities, one being Chinas political capital and one the financial capital, other cities in China either already have jumped, or are still jumping, on the underground bandwagon, building their own subway systems.

In the next two years, Chinese cities will have added an additional 800 miles to its subway system, says Frank Holmes on Forbes:

“The Asian giant has been in the midst of constructing the world’s largest transportation system, laying mile after mile of high-speed rail and subway track.  In 2015, when the infrastructure build-out is complete, China’s subway track alone will be a mind-boggling 1,900 miles, according to JPMorgan.

According to the World Metro Database, Beijing and Shanghai currently have the longest metro and subway systems, with about 275 miles each. The city of Guangzhou in China also falls in the top 10, with 144 miles of rail, beating Paris’ network length of 135 miles.”


These new subway lines intend to alleviate traffic congestion, air pollution, and provide city dwellers a faster mode of transportation. Whether large or small, it seems that Chinese cities have all caught the subway epidemic. Just to name a few; Hangzhou, Chengdu, Nanjing, Shenzhen, Tianjin, Dalian, Wuhan, Chongqing, Shenyang, Kunming, have all opened operational subways. Other cities that are busily constructing their first include; Harbin, Changsha, Qingdao, Ordos, Zhengzhou, Dongguan, Wenzhou, Shijiazhuang, Guiyang, amongst others. The Economist calculates the cost of these ambitious projects:

“If all the metros approved by central officials are built, 38 cities will have at least one line by the end of the decade, with more than 6,200km (3,850 miles) of track (London has nearly 400km.) As with many infrastructure projects in China, including the high-speed rail network above ground, questions abound about the wisdom and potential wastefulness of such ambitions. Many of the underground systems are needed, but some are being built in cities that are too small to justify the exorbitant expense. By some estimates the total bill could approach $1 trillion, not including the cost of operation.”

However, these expense may not be justified or particularly economically efficient. The controversial subway in Hangzhou for example, has experienced multiple leakages because the ground may be too soft and muddy for the metro. Some cities could also have chosen the cheaper light rail that runs above the ground instead of the usual underground, but city officials prefer the more expensive way, as The Economist goes on to explain:

“But the metro projects mostly rely on government subsidies, and operating them will be a “bottomless pit”, says Mr Zhao. He says city officials tend to pursue grand projects that may not even make money because they will not be around to bear the burden. The performance of local officials is evaluated on how much they increase local GDP, not on whether projects they build are needed. Today’s leaders get credit for spending money. Tomorrow’s must foot the bill.

Even megacities long overdue for more underground tracks—like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou—are building and operating them at a cost that worries planners. Operating the metro lines of Beijing, now up to 442km of track, has cost about $1.6 billion over the past two years, but passengers pay just 30 cents a ride. The metro has helped to alleviate traffic and pollution, yet Beijing remains one of the world’s most jammed and polluted cities; it needs more investment in public transport of all sorts.”

In Changsha, the dust and dirt in the city’s air has significantly increased due to the construction of the subway. Almost all major roads are blocked and dug open, and cars and buses are all running “temporary” detour routes. Do Chinese cities really need these new underground subways? For some, definitely yes. What about alternative methods to solve the pollution and congestion problems? Whatever the answer may be, performance-driven local officials are likely to carry on with their subway frenzy.

Image courtesy of Xinhuanet.com.

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