Tracking development: Railway is the key
Published: Aug 28, 2019 07:23 PM

Photo: IC

It was a wonderful experience traveling from Zhangjiakou, a city in North China's Hebei Province, to Beijing by train K42. Although high-speed trains have become a popular choice for foreign visitors, the slower "green trains" can help them see a fuller picture of China. The sights through the windows of high-speed and slower trains can offer a 360 degree view of China.

Railway is a benchmark for the development of rising powers, especially those with large populations and expansive territory. It is also a scale to measure the level of industrialization.

The K42 train runs though high mountains and lofty hills of northwestern Beijing, and crosses the Yongding River several times, at a speed of around 40 kilometers per hour.

The line was prospected and chosen by China's famous railway engineer Zhan Tianyou more than a century ago. But due to the mighty challenge and high costs, Zhan gave up this track and selected another route through the Badaling Great Wall.

In 1940, Japanese aggressors attempted to build this railway in a bid to loot coal resources in Datong, North China's Shanxi Province, but had to abandon the construction after some piling works were completed. 

After the founding of the People's Republic of China, the central government restarted building the 121-kilometer-long railway. The construction began in September 1952 and the line was opened to traffic three years later. The line was then built as a double-track railway in 1972 and was electrified in 1984. Renovations had continued until 2017, when it was moved underground to ensure the western extension of Chang'an Avenue, a major thoroughfare in Beijing.

Meanwhile, another high-speed rail line that will run through the mountains of northwestern Beijing is under construction, and is expected to begin operations by the end of 2019. It will serve the 2022 Winter Olympics in Zhangjiakou.

By then, it will take only around 50 minutes to travel from Beijing to Zhangjiakou, while the K42 train I rode took around 3.5 hours.

This is the epitome of the history of China's railway development in the past seven decades and also presents a miniature view of China's industrialization process. Although every step forward came with hardships and even deadlocks, China continued to advance and eventually achieved its goal.

Many of the world's vast emerging economies have yet to achieve industrialization, and some of them have even regressed. This can be seen from the development of railways.

By the year 1989, Argentina's total length of usable railways was 35,000 kilometers. By 2003, it shrank to more than 1,000 kilometers. When Indian won independence in 1947, its total length of railways was over 53,000 kilometers, far more than China's 21,000 kilometers when the People's Republic of China was established in 1949. But now, although the length of Indian railways has increased by more than 10,000 kilometers, electrified railways span just more than 20,000 kilometers. The length of China's electrified railways has already reached 87,000 kilometers.

There is a powerful and effective system behind the development of Chinese railways. The system can not only bring together human, material and financial resources to construct railway projects, but can also maintain long-term and continued upgradation.

When the system frees the Chinese people's hard-working spirit through reform and opening-up, China's development will step on the gas. This is an important experience that China's development went through. 

Other developing countries, especially large countries such as India, Argentina, Brazil and Indonesia, must first stop the backset of deindustrialization, no matter what development mode they choose. Second, they need to set policy foundation for the start of industrialization. Third, they should cultivate system and values that keep promoting industrialization and prevent it from retroversion. 

From this perspective, although China's experience is hard to use for reference, it can be an important inspiration. The Belt and Road Initiative that China is promoting also spreads important ideas of how to realize industrialization.

The author is a senior editor with People's Daily, and currently a senior fellow with the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China. dinggang@globaltimes.com.cn. Follow him on Twitter @dinggangchina