Harmony and Ambition China's Cut-Throat Railway Revolution
Part 2: 'Independent Innovation'
Still, Lu insists that the bodies of the Hexie trains as well as their contact-line and signaling systems are all Chinese intellectual property. "For a long time," he says, "we have stood at the forefront of global high-speed technology."
Likewise, there are claims that it won't be long before the trains' external appearances bear hardly any resemblance to the ones that have been imported from abroad. For example, the trains on the high-speed line currently under construction between Beijing and Shanghai will reportedly have a very unique Chinese design.
Railway engineers in China are proud to point out that they have developed more than 940 of their own patents. Officials from the Beijing-based Ministry of Railways closely monitor train manufacturers to make sure that they share the knowledge they've acquired from other countries amongst each other and continue to jointly develop that know-how. Collaborative efforts like these take place, for example, in the modern research center located in the middle of Qingdao's massive 1.3-square-kilometer (0.5-square-mile) railway factory complex that is directly supervised by the government.
"Zizhu chuangxin," or "independent innovation," is the Chinese catchphrase for their system of further developing foreign technologies. When he wants to demonstrate the meaning of the concept, Lu leads visitors to the part of the factory work floor where axles are being assembled and points out their spotlessly clean steel wheels. With each increase in traveling speed, Lu explains, it's also necessary to reinforce the material with carbon -- thus creating a completely unique product.
The work floor is currently being expanded. In late 2009, the Qingdao factory was producing 120 high-speed trains each year. By June of this year, the factory hopes to boost that number to 200. To make this goal a reality, Lu and his co-workers almost labor around the clock. Indeed, Lu says he hardly has any time for his family, but that his wife can't complain because she works here in the Qingdao factory, too.
People working in China's railway industry almost behave as if they were part of one big family, as can be seen, for example, in the way they urge each other on in their joint attempt to outdo their Western competitors. As Lu sees it, this patriotic incentive is precisely what distinguishes his country from Germany. Having taken several extensive tours of German train factories, Lu has concluded that: "Deutsche Bahn thinks first and foremost about Deutsche Bahn, and Siemens first and foremost about Siemens." "But, in China," he adds, "each person thinks about how we can all advance our nation together."
China 's Railway Boom
Zhao Xiaogang views things in very much the same way. The 59-year-old general manager of CSR receives visitors at the company's new headquarters in Beijing. A lanky man, he doesn't look like the head of the country's largest manufacturer of locomotives and railway cars. But, during the first quarter of 2010 alone, he has succeeded in boosting the company's net earnings by the equivalent of 39 million ($51 million) -- or 85 percent more than the company earned in the same period of 2009.
Since the outbreak of the global financial crisis, China's train manufacturers have been working with even more of a tailwind. As part of its efforts to further spur on the economic boom, Beijing plans to invest around 78 billion each year between now and 2012 toward expanding its railway network. Granted, high-speed trains on several routes, such as the one connecting Beijing and Tianjin, are operating at a considerable financial loss. But that's doesn't concern Zhao -- because that's where the government steps in.
A Need for Speed
Zhao, who has a degree in engineering, is driven by the ambition to keep setting new records with his trains. He becomes unexpectedly animated when he starts to discuss the noise levels in all classes of trains. China strictly adheres to European noise restrictions, he says, but his trains can travel 350 kph -- instead of 270 kph -- while maintaining a higher standard of comfort. "When I rode the Eurostar," Zhao recounts, "it shook so much I had to hold onto my seat." In China's newly developed trains, he says by way of comparison, he can walk around comfortably even at 350 kph.
Still, though its trains might be breaking records for speed, China is still assuming higher levels of risks than its foreign competitors. "Ensuring continued safety remains China's greatest challenge," says Sun Zhang, a transportation expert at Shanghai's Tongji University. Indeed, the country's Japanese competitors -- who have run the world's safest high-speed train network for 46 years -- go so far as to accuse China of risking lives in its manic pursuit of speed.
Zhao's engineers are already testing an even faster Hexie train -- a lightning-quick model capable of traveling 550 kph -- at the state-run railway laboratory in Qingdao. In October, the company hopes to set its next world record -- 600 kph. No one has ever flown so low.
Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein
- Part 1: China's Cut-Throat Railway Revolution
- Part 2: 'Independent Innovation'