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China’s High Speed Rail System Faces Heavy Debt Risk

China tops the world with its advanced high speed rail system. As of the end of 2018, China’s high-speed railway operating mileage reached 29,000 kilometers (18,019 miles). The statistics, however, suggest that China has also paid a huge price which may take a number of generations to pay back. Radio Free Asia published an article that Caixin initially reported. It describes the financial risk that China’s high speed rail system faces. The data shows that China’s high speed rail is facing a huge debt and financial losses. The risks can be summarized in the following five areas:

First, China’s high speed rail relies mainly on debt financing. The debt that China Railway General (formerly the Ministry of Railways) had has since soared from 476.8 billion yuan (US$70.39 billion) in 2005 to 4.72 trillion yuan (US$700 billion) in 2016. China Railway has always kept the financial data of the high speed rail strictly confidential, but from its published debt and revenue data, it can be concluded that, even if the operating cost of the high speed rail is not considered, the total transportation revenue of the high-speed rail is not enough to pay the interest on the loan for the construction of the high speed rail.

Second, most of the high speed rail is losing money. Other than the rail between Beijing Shanghai and Beijing Guangzhou, most of the other rails are way below capacity. There are only four rails running between Lanzhou to Xinjiang compared to a daily capacity of 160. The ticket revenue can’t even cover the cost of electricity. Even for the busy route from Beijing to Shanghai, the capacity utilization rate of number of passengers per kilometer is only half of that in Japan.

Third, since the high speed rail has a weight limit, the transportation of goods had to be shifted from railway to ground. The market share of China’s railway freight volume (excluding ocean shipping) has dropped rapidly from 50 percent in 2005 at 3 percentage points per year to only 17.1 percent in 2016.

Fourth, the high speed rail drove up the cost of freight. China Railway has relied on a continuous increase in the price of railway freight to make up for the serious losses of the high speed rail, thus driving the cargo owners to use ground transportation. Hence the increase in the ground transportation cost.

Fifth, freight transportation is heavily dependent on roads which aggravate air pollution. The rapid decline in the market share of railway freight transport has led to a large amount of basic raw materials that rely on ground transport, which has increased air pollution. This problem is more prominent in densely populated areas such as the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region and the Yangtze River Delta.

Source: Radio Free Asia, January 29, 2019