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Railways reshape economic geography

Author  :  Xiao Wei, Xiao Zilin     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2016-08-01

On August 1st, 2008, the first high-speed inter-city railway line between Beijing and Tianjin came into service, signifying China’s entry into the era of high-speed railways. The trains that use this line are capable of reaching 300 kilometers per hour.

By the end of the 12th Five-Year Plan, the Chinese high-speed railway network had expanded to 19,000 kilometers of rail lines, taking up 60 percent of the world total. By the end of 2020, the railway system will cover 30,000 kilometers, servicing 80 percent of China’s large cities. The railway network has become a revolutionary element that reshapes the economic geography of Chinese cities.

Balanced development

According to the Medium to LongTerm Plan on China’s Railway Network, by the end of 2020, high-speed railways between all large and medium-sized cities will have been built. By the end of 2030, the railway network will have been comprehensively upgraded from “four rail lines north to south and four lines east to west” to “eight rail lines north to south and eight lines east to west.”

The eight rail lines north to south include the railways from Beijing to Shanghai and Fuzhou, Beijing to Shenzhen, Harbin to Hong Kong, Hohhot to Sanya, Yinchuan to Fuzhou, Xi’an to Kunming and one that links eastern coastal cities. Northern and southern cities have their unique advantages in terms of resources, human capital and social culture. These lines will promote the efficient distribution of resources between the included cities, and facilitate the spread of technology and business in core areas. The eight lines east to west include those from Beijing to Lanzhou, Qingdao to Yinchuan, Lanzhou to Lianyungang, Shanghai to Chengdu and Lhasa, Shanghai to Kunming, Chongqing to Xiamen, Guangzhou to Chengdu and Guangzhou to Kunming. There is a distinct economic gap between the eastern and western regions in China. Therefore, the east to west lines will help western regions achieve the same kind of industrial transition that the eastern areas have experienced, thus balancing economic development between the two regions.

City clusters

According to the 13th Five-Year Plan, China will speed up to build the inter-city passenger transport system in the central economic areas, such as the regions near the coast, rivers and railway junctions, forming multiple city clusters in balanced development.

Dedicated high-speed trains for passengers will be built between provincial capitals, such as Guangzhou and Nanning, Chengdu and Lanzhou, Chengdu and Xi’an, Chengdu and Guiyang, and Taiyuan and Xi’an. These lines will optimize resources in a larger area, strengthen communication between provincial capitals and city clusters, and form networked circles among markets, industries and transportation.

Regional inter-city trains will facilitate balanced development of city clusters. They will be built in cities and regions such as Shenyang, Changchun, Jilin, Zhengzhou, Wuhan, Changsha, Zhuzhou, Xiangtan, Chengdu and their suburb areas, as well as the Ganjiang and the Wanjiang economic zones. The train system will promote the formation and development of city clusters in the northeastern and central regions of China, as well as the middle reaches of the Yangtze River, the Central Shaanxi Plain, and Chengdu-Chongqing area.


The evolution of a city’s geographical system is a dynamic process that is influenced by economic development. Highspeed railway systems bring about balanced development between urban and rural areas. Railway systems can connect large cities to medium-sized and small cities, as well as small towns, gradually forming a positive cycle of concentration of resources, market scale expansion, innovation driven development, and effective growth mechanisms.

New towns have emerged around railway stations, and thus became new engines that drive the city’s economy. Experiences from developed countries such as Japan, France and Germany show that high-speed railways breed new city centers, expand the space of a city, and form new industrial engines. They promote the structural transformation of cities and upgrade their industries.

Cross border high-speed railways also have the potential to inject new vitality for the opening and development of domestic cities. Under the “Belt and Road” strategic framework, China has suggested building world-class high-speed railways, such as the Trans-Asian Highspeed Railway, Central Asia High-Speed Railway, Europe-Asia High-Speed railway and a railway that connects China, Russia, Canada and the US. The railway system along the “Belt and Road” will bring new business opportunities to cooperative organizations, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Eurasian Economic Union, and ChinaASEAN network.

Editor: Yu Hui

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