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China: Railroads
Country Study > Chapter 8 > Trade and Transportation > Transportation > Railroads


China's first railroad line was built in 1876. In the 73 years that followed, 22,000 kilometers of track were laid, but only half were operable in 1949. Between 1949 and 1985, more than 30,000 kilometers of lines were added to the existing network, mostly in the southwest or coastal areas where previous rail development had been concentrated. By 1984 China had 52,000 kilometers of operating track, 4,000 kilometers of which had been electrified. All provinces, autonomous regions, and special municipalities, with the exception of Xizang Autonomous Region, were linked by rail. Many double-track lines, electric lines, special lines, and railroad bridges were added to the system. Railroad technology also was upgraded to improve the performance of the existing rail network. There still were shortcomings, however. Most of the trunk lines were old, there was a general shortage of double-track lines, and Chinese officials admitted that antiquated management techniques still were being practiced. There were plans in the late 1980s to upgrade the rail system, particularly in east China, in the hope of improving performance.

China's railroads are heavily used. In 1986, the latest year for which statistics were available, railroads carried 1 billion passengers and 1.3 billion tons of cargo. The average freight traffic density was 15 million tons per route-kilometer, double that of the United States and three times that of India. Turnaround time between freight car loadings averaged less than four days.

Between 1980 and 1985, China built about 3,270 kilometers of new track, converted 1,581 kilometers to double track, and electrified 2,500 kilometers of track. The total investment in this period amounted to over -Y21.4 billion (for value of the yuan -- see Glossary). Railroads accounted for over two-thirds of the total ton-kilometers and over half the passenger-kilometers in China's transportation systems. China's longest electrified double-track railroad, running from Beijing to Datong, Shanxi Province, was opened for operation in 1984. One of the world's highest railroads, at 3,000 meters above sea level in Qinghai Province, also went into service in the same year, and improved doubletrack railroads, some of them electrified, offered a fast way to transport coal from Shanxi Province to the highly industrialized eastern part of the country and the port of Qinhuangdao for export.

Production and maintenance of modern locomotives also made an important contribution to increased rail capacity. Manufacturing output in the mid-1980s increased significantly when production of electric and diesel locomotives for the first time exceeded that of steam-powered ones. China hoped, in the long-run, to phase out its steam-powered locomotives. In the mid-1980s China had more than 280,000 freight cars and about 20,000 passenger cars. The country still was unable, however, to meet the transportation needs brought about by rapid economic expansion.

Data as of July 1987

Last Updated: July 1987

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for China was first published in 1987. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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