China high speed rail costs are two thirds the cost of the next lowest cost country

By the end of 2013, China had built a high speed rail network of over 10,000 route-km, far exceeding that in any other country and larger than the network in the entire European Union. It has been accomplished at a cost which is at most two-thirds of that in other countries.

According to a World Bank paper titled High-Speed Railways in China: A Look at Construction Costs, several factors influence the cost of a high speed rail project construction. The major factors include the line design speed, topography along the alignment, weather conditions, land acquisition costs, use of viaducts instead of embankments, the construction of major bridges across wide rivers, and the construction of mega stations.

Laying track on viaducts is often preferred in China to minimize resettlement and the use of fertile land as well as to reduce environmental impacts. The estimated cost of viaducts in China ranges from RMB 57 to 73 m/km for a double track line. Such costs are kept low through standardization of the design and manufacturing process for casting and laying bridge beams on viaducts.

Special bridges that cross large navigable rivers or that need to accommodate special topographic features like mountains have much higher cost per kilometer than that of a regular viaduct. Usually such bridges represent a small percentage of the total number of bridges. Projects having larger proportion of special bridges tend to have a high unit cost.

Railway stations play a dual role as transport hubs and urban centers. Small stations (3,000 sq m station building) cost about RMB 40 million and account for 1.0 to 1.5 percent of the total project cost, while mega stations may cost up to RMB 13 billion and are frequently built as independent projects.

Lower unit costs were a result of the development of competitive multiple local sources for construction (earthworks, bridges, tunnels, EMU trains etc.) that adopted mechanization in construction and manufacturing. Further, large volumes and the ability to amortize capital investment in high-cost construction equipment over a number of projects contributed to the lowering of unit costs.

Other factors include a relatively low cost of land acquisition and resettlement, localization of the design and manufacture of goods and components as well as the standardization of designs for embankments, track, viaducts, electrification, signaling and communication systems. For example, the slab track manufacture process was imported from Germany but the cost of the Chinese made product is about a third lower than the German product as a result of large volumes and a lower labor cost. The technology developed for construction of tunnels not only resulted in a low unit cost but also a speed of 5-10 m of tunnel construction per day. The HSR tunnel construction cost in China (about US$ 10-15 million per km) is a fraction of that in other countries. Tunnel costs are heavily influenced by geology and labor costs and, in the case of China, the latter has also helped in cost reduction.

The paper notes that construction cost of high speed rail in China tends to be lower than in other countries. China’s high speed rail with a maximum speed of 350 km/h has a typical infrastructure unit cost of about US$ 17-21m per km, with a high ratio of viaducts and tunnels, as compared with US$25-39 m per km in Europe and as high as US$ 56m per km currently estimated in California.