China experiences metro boom

©  Safia Osman

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China may be the new kid on the metro block since it has seen an explosion in metro construction prompted by the need to tackle its cities’ ever increasing traffic congestion and record-breaking levels of pollution.

Today, a total of 23 cities in China have metros tallying 2,735km, with a further 2,853km planned, whilst Shanghai and Beijing have now reached second and third place in the rankings for the world’s largest metro networks.

The country opened its first metro line in the capital Beijing in 1969. There was then an 11-year gap until Tianjin was completed in 1980. With economic liberalisation in the 1980s two more cities began to plan metros starting with Shanghai’s first 6.6km section opened in May 1993, followed by Guangzhou with its 5km line in June 1997.

The sheer scale of investments required for building a modern metro system led the government to impose a ban in 2002 on beginning any new constructions. The interdict could not last for long as the need to address the explosive growth of China’s cities, increasing motorisation and congestion, and worsening pollution forced the government to rethink its strategy and eventually perform a u-turn in 2004.

Metro construction then received a further impetus when Beijing was awarded the Olympics in 2008 and Shanghai the 2010 World Expo.

Since 2004, huge sums have been invested in metro projects, through public-private partnerships (PPP) and build, operate, transfer (BOT) funding schemes, enabling Chinese cities to leapfrog ahead of their global counterparts. Both Shanghai with a 538.8km system of 14 lines and Beijing with a 16-line 434km metro now have the largest networks in the world ahead of London (408km), New York (370km), Seoul (327km), Moscow (325km), Tokyo (304km), Mexico City (226km), Madrid (224km) and Paris (215km).

The speed and scale of construction in China is said to be breathtaking and in a league of its own in comparison with metro-building in other parts of the world, whereas most other cities build one line at a time due to the high costs of building in densely populated areas and the engineering resources required. China as a whole, for example, saw 370km of new lines starting operations in 2013 and a further 490km opening in 2014. The investment figures for projects are also mind-boggling as they often reach highs of 800bn Yuan or €120bn.   

According to estimates, the number of Chinese cities with more than 1 million inhabitants is expected to increase from 90 to 221 by 2020. 44 of these could top 4 million and six cities are already called megacities with over 10 million inhabitants. With these levels of population growth and worsening road congestion and pollution, if China can maintain its funding levels then new metro construction projects have a bright future ahead of them.

Readers can discover UITP’s Statistics Brief on World Metro Figures for the year 2013 here.

Date for your diary: the 2015 UITP Rail Conference will take place this October (28-30) in Munich. Find out more here.


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