History of transportation in the People's Republic of China

History of transportation in the People's Republic of China

Transportation has been a major factor in People's Republic of China's national economy. For most of the period since 1949, however, transportation occupied a relatively low priority in China's national development. In the twenty-five years that followed the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, China's transportation network was built into a partially modern but somewhat inefficient system. The drive to modernize the transport system that began in 1978 required a sharp acceleration in investment. Though despite increased investment and development in the 1980s, the transportation sector was strained by the rapid expansion of production and the exchange of goods.

Inadequate transportation systems hindered the movement of coal from mine to user, the transportation of agricultural and light industrial products from rural to urban areas, and the delivery of imports and exports. As a result, the underdeveloped transportation system constrained the pace of economic development throughout the country. In the 1980s the updating of transportation systems was given priority, and investment and improvements were made throughout the transportation sector.


In 1986 China's transportation system consisted of long distance hauling by railroads and inland waterways and medium distance and rural transportation by trucks and buses on national and provincial-level highways. Waterborne transportation dominated freight traffic in east, central, and southwest China, along the Yangtze River and its tributaries, and in Guangdong and Guangxi, served by the Pearl River system. All provinces, autonomous regions, and special municipalities, with the exception of Xizang, were linked by railroads. Many double-track lines, electrified lines, special lines, and bridges were added to the system. Subways were operating in Beijing and Tianjin, and construction was being planned in other large cities. National highways linked provincial-level capitals with Beijing and major ports.

Roads were built between large, medium, and small towns as well as between towns and railroad connections. The maritime fleet made hundreds of port calls in virtually all parts of the world, but the inadequate port and harbor facilities at home still caused major problems. Civil aviation underwent tremendous development during the 1980s. Domestic and international air service was greatly increased. In 1985 the transportation system handled 2.7 billion tons of goods. Of this, the railroads handled 1.3 billion tons; highways handled 762 million tons; inland waterways handled 434 million tons; ocean shipping handled 65 million tons; and civil airlines handled 195,000 tons. The 1985 volume of passenger traffic was 428 billion passenger-kilometers. Of this, railroad traffic accounted for 241.6 billion passenger-kilometers; road traffic, for 157.3 billion passenger-kilometers; waterway traffic, for 17.4 billion passenger-kilometers; and air traffic, for 11.7 billion passenger-kilometers.

Ownership and control of the different elements of the transportation system varied according to their roles and their importance in the national economy. The railroads were owned by the state and controlled by the Ministry of Railways. In 1986 a contract system for the management of railroad lines was introduced in China. Five-year contracts were signed between the ministry and individual railroad bureaus that were given responsibility for their profits and losses. The merchant fleet was operated by the China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO), a state-owned enterprise. The national airline was run by the General Administration of Civil Aviation of China (CAAC). Regional airlines were run by provincial-level and municipal authorities. Highways and inland waterways were the responsibilities of the Ministry of Communications. Trucking and inland navigation were handled by government-operated transportation departments as well as by private enterprises.

Transportation was designated a top priority in the Seventh Five-Year Plan (1986-90). Under the plan, transportation-related projects accounted for 39 of 190 priority projects. Because most were long-term development projects, a large number were carried over from 1985, and only a few new ones were added. The plan called for an increase of approximately 30 percent in the volume of various kinds of cargo transportation by 1990 over 1985 levels. So each mode of transportation would have to increase its volume by approximately 5.4 percent annually during the 5-year period. The plan also called for updating passenger and freight transportation and improving railroad, waterways, and air transportation. To achieve these goals, the government planned to increase state and local investment as well as to use private funds.

The Seventh Five-Year Plan gave top priority to increasing the capacity of existing rail lines and, in particular, to improving the coal transportation lines between Shanxi and other provincial-level units and ports and to boosting total transportation capacity to 230 million tons by 1990. Other targets were the construction of 3,600 kilometers of new rail lines, the double-tracking of 3,300 kilometers of existing lines, and the electrification of 4,000 kilometers of existing lines.

Port construction also was listed as a priority project in the plan. The combined accommodation capacity of ports was increased by 200 million tons, as compared with 100 million tons under the Sixth Five-Year Plan (1981-85). Priority also was given to highway construction. China built new highways and rebuild existing highways to a total length of 140,000 kilometers. At the end of the Seventh Five-Year Plan, the total length of highways was increased to 1 million kilometers from the existing 940,000 kilometers. Air passenger traffic was increased by an average of 14.5 percent annually over the 5-year period, and air transportation operations were to be decentralized. Existing airports were upgraded and new ones built.

Rail transport

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 were still 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 have been heavily used as a proportion of total transportation. In 1986, 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 ¥21.4 billion. 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, was opened for operation in 1984. One of the world's highest railroads, at 3,000 meters above sea level in Qinghai, 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 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, in the long-run, wanted 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.

China continued to build mainline steam locomotives until late in the century, even building a few examples for American tourist operations. Since China was the last main-line user of steam locomotives, ending officially at the beginning of 2006, it was plausible that many still exist in industrial operations or in more remote parts of China. The last steam locomotives built in China were 2-10-2's in the late 1990s.


China's first subways (or metro) opened to traffic in Beijing in 1970, and Tianjin in 1980, respectively, and subway systems were planned for construction in Harbin, Shanghai, and Guangzhou beginning in the 1980s. In its first phase, the Beijing subway system had 23.6 kilometers of track and 17 stations. In 1984 the second phase of construction added 16.1 kilometers of track and 12 stations, and in 1987 additional track and another station were added to close the loop on a now circular system. In 1987 there were plans to upgrade the signaling system and railcar equipment on seventeen kilometers of the first segment built. The subway carried more than 100 million passengers in 1985, or about 280,000 on an average day and 450,000 on a peak day. In 1987 this accounted for only 4 percent of Beijing's 9 million commuters. The Beijing subway authorities estimated that passenger traffic would increase 20 percent yearly. To accommodate the increase in riders, Beijing constructed an extension of a seven-kilometer subway line under Chang'an Boulevard, from Fuxing Gate in the east to Jianguo Gate in the west. The Tianjin subway opened a five-kilometer line in 1980. The Shanghai subway constructed 14.4 kilometers of track in its first phase.

Highways and roads

In 1986 China had approximately 962,800 kilometers of highways, 52,000 kilometers of which were completed between 1980 and 1985. During this period China also rebuilt 22,000 kilometers of highways in cities and rural areas. Nearly 110,000 kilometers of roads were designated part of a network of national highways, including roads linking provincial-level capitals with Beijing and China's major ports.

Provincial-level and local governments were responsible for their own transportation and road construction, some with foreign expertise and financing to hasten the process. Most financing and maintenance funds came from the provincial level, supplemented in the case of rural roads by local labor. In line with the increased emphasis on developing light industry and decentralizing agriculture, roads were built in large, medium-sized, and small towns and to railroad connections, making it possible for products to move rapidly between cities and across provincial-level boundaries. In 1986 approximately 780,000 kilometers of the roads, or 81 percent, were surfaced. The remaining 19 percent (fairweather roads) were in poor condition, hardly passable on rainy days. Only 20 percent of the roads were paved with asphalt; about 80 percent had gravel surfaces. In addition, 60 percent of the major highways needed repair.

China's highways carried 660 million tons of freight and 410 million passengers in 1985. In 1984 the authorities began assigning medium-distance traffic (certain goods and sundries traveling less than 100 kilometers and passengers less than 200 kilometers) to highways to relieve the pressure on railroads. Almost 800 national highways were used for transporting cargo. Joint provincial-level transportation centers were designated to take care of crosscountry cargo transportation between provinces, autonomous regions, and special municipalities. A total of about 15,000 scheduled rural buses carried 4.3 million passengers daily, and more than 2,300 national bus services handled a daily average of 450,000 passengers. The number of trucks and buses operated by individuals, collectives, and families reached 130,000 in 1984, about half the number of state-owned vehicles. In 1986 there were 290,000 private motor vehicles in China, 95 percent of which were trucks. Most trucks had a four- to five-ton capacity.

The automobile was becoming an increasingly important mode of transportation in China. The automotive industry gave priority to improving quality and developing new models rather than increasing production. Nevertheless, as a result of the introduction of modern technology through joint ventures with advanced industrialized countries, Chinese automobile production for 1985 surpassed 400,000 units.

Although cars and trucks were the primary means of highway transportation, in the mid-1980s carts pulled by horses, mules, donkeys, cows, oxen, and camels still were common in rural areas. Motor vehicles often were unable to reach efficient travel speeds near towns and cities in rural areas because of the large number of slow-moving tractors, bicycles, hand- and animal-drawn carts, and pedestrians. Strict adherence to relatively low speed limits in some areas also kept travel speeds at inefficient levels.


In the late 1980s, China had more than 140,000 highway bridges. Their length totaled almost 4,000 kilometers. Among the best known were the Yellow River Bridge in Inner Mongolia, the Liu Jiang Bridge in Guangxi, the Ou Jiang Bridge in Zhejiang, the Quanzhou Bridge in Fujian, and four large bridges along the Guangzhou-Shenzhen highway. Five major bridges — including China's longest highway bridge, the 5,560-meter-long Yellow River Bridge at Zhengzhou — were under construction during the mid-1980s, and a 10,282-meter-long railroad bridge across the Yellow River on the Shandong-Henan border was completed in 1985.

Inland waterways

Inland navigation is China's oldest form of transportation. Despite the potential advantages of water transportation, it was often mismanaged or neglected in the past. Beginning in 1960 the network of navigable inland waterways decreased further because of the construction of dams and irrigation works and the increasing sedimentation. But by the early 1980s, as the railroads became increasingly congested, the authorities came to see water transportation as a much less expensive alternative to new road and railroad construction.

The central government set out to overhaul the inefficient inland waterway system and called upon localities to play major roles in managing and financing most of the projects. By 1984 China's longest river, the Yangtze River, with a total of 70,000 kilometers of waterways open to shipping on its main stream and 3,600 kilometers on its tributaries, became the nation's busiest shipping lane, carrying 72 percent of China's total waterborne traffic. An estimated 340,000 people and 170,000 boats were engaged in the water transportation business. More than 800 shipping enterprises and 60 shipping companies transported over 259 million tons of cargo on the Yangtze River and its tributaries in 1984. Nationally, in 1985 the inland waterways carried some 434 million tons of cargo. In 1986 there were approximately 138,600 kilometers of inland waterways, 79 percent of which were navigable.

The Cihuai Canal in northern Anhui opened to navigation in 1984. This 134-kilometer canal linking the Ying River, a major tributary of the Huai River, with the Huai He's main course, had an annual capacity of 600,000 tons of cargo. The canal promoted the flow of goods between Anhui and neighboring provinces and helped to develop the Huai River Plain, one of China's major grain-producing areas.

Maritime shipping

During the early 1960s, China's merchant marine had fewer than thirty ships. By the 1970s and 1980s, maritime shipping capabilities had greatly increased. In 1985 China established eleven shipping offices and jointly operated shipping companies in foreign countries. In 1986 China ranked ninth in world shipping with more than 600 ships and a total tonnage of 16 million, including modern roll-on and roll-off ships, container ships, large bulk carriers, refrigerator ships, oil tankers, and multipurpose ships. The fleet called at more than 400 ports in more than 100 countries.

The container ship fleet also was expanding rapidly. In 1984 China had only fifteen container ships. Seven more were added in 1985, and an additional twenty-two were on order. By the early 1980s, Chinese shipyards had begun to manufacture a large number of ships for their own maritime fleet. The China Shipping Inspection Bureau became a member of the Suez Canal Authority in 1984, empowering China to sign and issue seaworthiness certificates for ships on the Suez Canal and confirming the good reputation and maturity of its shipbuilding industry. In 1986 China had 523 shipyards of various sizes, 160 specialized factories, 540,000 employees, and more than 80 scientific research institutes. The main shipbuilding and repairing bases of Shanghai, Dalian, Tianjin, Guangzhou, and Wuhan had 14 berths for 10,000-ton-class ships and 13 docks.

The inadequacy of port and harbor facilities was a longstanding problem for China but has become a more serious obstacle because of increased foreign trade. Beginning in the 1970s, the authorities gave priority to port construction. From 1972 to 1982, port traffic increased sixfold, largely because of the foreign trade boom. The imbalance between supply and demand continued to grow. Poor management and limited port facilities created such backups that by 1985 an average of 400 to 500 ships were waiting to enter major Chinese ports on any given day. The July 1985 delay of more than 500 ships, for instance, caused huge losses. All of China's major ports are undergoing some construction. To speed economic development, the Seventh Five-Year Plan called for the construction by 1990 of 200 new berths — 120 deep-water berths for ships above 10,000 tons and 80 medium-sized berths for ships below 10,000 tons — bringing the total number of berths to 1,200. Major port facilities were developed all along China's coast.

Civil aviation

In 1987 China's civil aviation system was operated by the General Administration of Civil Aviation of China (CAAC). By 1987 China had more than 229,000 kilometers of domestic air routes and more than 94,000 kilometers of international air routes. The more than 9 million passengers and 102,000 tons of freight traffic represented a 40 percent growth over the previous year. The air fleet consisted of about 175 aircraft and smaller turboprop transports. CAAC had 274 air routes, including 33 international flights to 28 cities in 23 countries, such as Tokyo, Osaka, Nagasaki, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, London, Paris, Frankfurt, East Berlin, Zurich, Moscow, Istanbul, Manila, Bangkok, Singapore, Sydney, and Hong Kong. Almost 200 domestic air routes connected such major cities as Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Kunming, Chengdu, and Xi'an, as well as a number of smaller cities. The government had bilateral air service agreements with more than 40 countries and working relations with approximately 386 foreign airline companies. CAAC also provided air service for agriculture, forestry, communications, and scientific research.

The staff of CAAC was estimated at approximately 50,000 in the 1980s. The administration operated three training colleges to educate future airline personnel. In a bid to improve CAAC's services, more ticket offices were opened in major cities for domestic and international flights.

In the mid-1980s regional airlines began operations under the general aegis of CAAC. Wuhan Airlines, run by the Wuhan municipal authorities, started scheduled passenger flights to Hubei, Hunan, Guangdong, and Sichuan provinces in May 1986. Xizang also planned to set up its own airline to fly to Kathmandu and Hong Kong.

In the 1980s the central government increased its investment in airport construction, and some local governments also granted special funds for such projects. Lhasa Airport in Xizang, Jiamusi Airport in Heilongjiang, and Kashi airport and Yining airports in Xinjiang were expanded, and new airports were under construction in Xi'an, Luoyang, and Shenzhen. An investment of ¥500 million was planned for expanding runways and building new terminals and other airport facilities. In 1986 China had more than ninety civilian airports, of which eight could accommodate Boeing 747s and thirty-two could accommodate Boeing 737s and Tridents.

See also


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