Chinese Are Stuck at Home, Short on Wheels and Wings

WITH six hours until her departure, Lu Yanmin still had no train ticket. Wearily propped against her luggage at the cavernous Beijing West Railway Station, Ms. Lu said she had no choice but to pay 50 percent extra and buy a $20 ticket on the black market.

''Everyone is anxious to go back and have Spring Festival,'' said the design engineer, en route from northeastern China to her family home in Henan Province.

China's overburdened transport grid faced the year's biggest crush as more than 150 million people streamed home for the Feb. 19 Lunar New Year or Spring Festival. The holiday, akin to Christmas in the West, set off a scramble for scarce seats on airplanes, trains, and buses, and underscored the yawning inadequacy of transportation in a country with a booming economy.

During the holiday season, which started Jan. 30 and ends this week, 143 million people are expected to have traveled by train.

The number of those taking trains has risen more than 7 percent from last year, according to the official press. Six million others are expected to fly, requiring 3,500 extra flights. Millions will take buses for shorter trips.

The holiday exodus has grown in recent years as millions of villagers, who moved to cities to get higher-paying jobs make yearly pilgrimages back home.

Yet, even in normal times, Chinese airways, railways, and roads are crowded to the limit. Years of neglect and lack of investment in transportation has left China with one of the world's least-developed rail and highway networks, lagging behind countries such as Brazil, India, and Russia.

Although market-style reforms have spurred economic growth, severe transportation bottlenecks hinder faster development, Western analysts say. The slow-moving, overcrowded rail network can carry only about 60 percent of shipping needs.

A 1993 study by the World Bank estimates China loses up to $5 billion yearly due to a poor transportation infrastructure. Inadequate road, rail, and water links keep coal, China's major power source, and other raw materials from reaching booming coastal regions.

During the 1980s, China invested only 1.4 percent of its gross domestic product in transportation. That compared with 2.8 percent in other developing countries and up to 4 percent in the industrial world.

To make up for lost time, China has made transportation a top priority. Until the turn of the century, Beijing plans to spend up to $50 billion to expand dramatically its rail network.

During the 1990s, the skeletal highway system will be expanded by one-fifth, linking almost all major regional and provincial cities, especially around the central Chinese hubs of Wuhan and Zhengzhou. Nineteen airports are being built, expanded, or improved, and seven cities plan to complete subway or light-rail projects by the turn of the century.

Still, Chinese transport planners can barely keep pace with growing demand. Since China launched its open-door economic policy in 1979, intercity freight traffic has grown on average 8 percent yearly and passenger traffic has increased an average 12 percent yearly.

Things are not getting worse, but they are not getting better either, says Daud Ahmad, a World Bank official who has worked on transport projects in China. Transport is no less a constraint today than it was 10 years ago.

A high-profile cornerstone of the massive transport expansion is the $4.8 billion, 1,500-mile rail link between Beijing and Kowloon in Hong Kong. Anchoring the line, which will be finished before Hong Kong reverts to Chinese rule in 1997, is the new $518 million Beijing West Railway Station, Asia's largest.

The sprawling station will be able to handle up to 90 pairs of trains and more than 100,000 passengers daily, double the capacity of Beijing's current station.

Although unfinished and lacking water and electricity in parts of the building, the station was rushed into operation as a public-relations move before the Chinese New Year. ''This station shows our technology has reached a new level of excellence,'' boasted Deng Jianzhong, a top official at the station.

''Well, it's a lot bigger than the old station,'' observed the waiting Ms. Lu. ''But it's located a long way out, and it's not so convenient.''

Although China is financing 80 percent of the transportation expansion itself, the government still must rely on borrowing. Its two largest international lenders are the Japanese government and the World Bank.

In recent years, private foreign investors have also been drawn by the promise of an expanding China's transport sector. However, during the last two years, their enthusiasm has cooled as high-profile projects, like a Guangzhou-Kowloon highway, encountered contractual conflicts with the Chinese government.

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