Growing numbers of urban dwellers switch on to convenience of carpools

After becoming pregnant three months ago, Sonia Shi started looking for a new way to make the daily 20-kilometre journey to work at a bank near Beijing Financial Street.

Driving on the capital's notoriously gridlocked roads felt increasingly dangerous. Hailing a taxi proved too expensive and too difficult. Pushing her way onto a crowded subway carriage was painful.

She eventually reached the same conclusion as a growing number of urban mainlanders: it was time to carpool. More specifically, Shi "vanpools".

For 50 yuan (HK$61) a day - half the price of a taxi - Shi is carried door-to-door in the back of a seven-seat van. The driver, whom she found after a week of searching, has a decade of driving experience.

Now, while her colleagues fume on the packed highways or squeeze into the subway, Shi sits calmly in a small van, letting someone else deal with the stress of rush hour.

"I've never thought of carpooling before, but now I am pregnant," Shi said, describing the experience as, "great. Very convenient."

Growing traffic problems are slowly leading more mainlanders to leave their own cars at home and carpool to work. The trend has grown despite concerns over liability and regulations in some cities that put the practice in a legal grey area.

Over years of rapid economic growth, China has become the world's largest car market and manufacturer.

By July, there were more than 72 million privately owned cars on the mainland- up from just 10 million in 2003 - according to the Ministry of Public Security.

An estimated five million of those cars are in Beijing alone. So, it's not surprising that Beijingers endure the nation's longest daily commutes, at just under one hour each way, according to a 2010 report by Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

In response to the traffic crunch, governments have vowed to improve access to public transport. In October, the State Council issued a nationwide call for more spending to improve urban transport.

But the expansion of bus and train lines may do little to slow the increase in traffic congestion. Beijing built 13 subways - for a total of 15 - in the last decade, but its traffic problems have only grown more serious. Meanwhile, it has become one of the world's most polluted cities.

Authorities have begun looking for other ways to ease traffic. In the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, city leaders began restricting cars to six days a week on the road, based on the last number on their licence plates.

In 2010, planners curbed new car purchases by requiring to drivers to enter a lottery for licence plates.

The capital is now considering extending its driving ban. The Beijing Municipal Committee of Communication is weighing whether to restrict cars with either odd or even number plates during rush hours on alternating days.

Other cities, including Guangzhou and Chengdu , have enacted similar traffic controls.

So it's not surprising that some drivers have started looking for their own solutions, such as carpooling. IT engineer Xu Zhiqing has saved much time and money since becoming a regular carpooler in 2007.

It takes less him less than half an hour to make the 50-kilometre trip in a shared car, compared to two hours by bus and subway. He spends about 10 yuan each way, including tolls and fuel.

Neighbours set up an online chat group to manage requests and "in most of cases, all seats are taken", Xu said.

Nonetheless, carpooling has been slow to catch on. Two companies that opened in 2006 to provide matches to potential carpool partners in the Zhejiang province cities of Hangzhou and Shaoxing folded within two months.

Three years later, Hangzhou became the first mainland city to actively promote carpooling with a pilot car-sharing programme. But the programme received tepid response, logging only two requests a month.

People often cite the same reason for the hesitancy to participate in carpools: regulations that often equate charging co-workers and neighbours for rides with running an illegal taxi service.

Last month, a Shenzhen man was accused of running an illegal taxi operation and had his driver's licence suspended for accepting 50 yuan to drive a pregnant colleague to the office, according to the Shenzhen Economic Daily.

He faces a fine of up to 30,000 yuan for accepting the money, which he says was only intended to cover fuel.

There are other risks involved in carpooling, including legal liability. Drivers and owners are usually liable for damage or injuries incurred in car crashes.

Because of that, Xu said he and his neighbours have an understanding about liability. For example, the passengers would use their medical insurance should they be injured in pooled car.

"Fortunately we've never had an accident, but [legal liability] is still a big concern," Xu said.

Li Xudong , another Beijing IT engineer who sometimes offers free rides to neighbours, said legal issues still gave him pause.

"There are no legal rules about liability of drivers and riders, which is not fair to drivers, even when we are doing good deeds," Li said.

But increased carpooling may be inevitable, with the rapid development of highways and the continued practice of national holiday weeks that have been blamed for massive traffic jams.

The website one of the country's biggest classified portals, saw a 30 per cent increase in carpool requests before the recent National Day holiday.

Traffic experts like Pang Shihui , a researcher at the Beijing Academy of Social Sciences, said carpools deserved more government support.

"Rather than treating it as an illegal operation, the government should give carpools a legal identity and official support to offer more carpooling services, which have proved to be an efficient way to ease traffic jams in many foreign cities," Pang said.




Chinese firms sign deal to build railway, port

Two Chinese companies have reached a deal to build a 400-km rail line, a steel plant and a sea port in Cambodia worth a combined $US11.2 billion.

The deal, which was signed on Monday, would be by far the impoverished country's biggest-ever investments.

Chinese firm Cambodia Iron and Steel has contracted the China Railway Group to build the railway to link a steel facility in northern Preah Vihear province to a port at the southern commercial island of Koh Kong.

The rail link and port would cost $9.6 billion and the steel plant $1.6 billion.

The country's main opposition party, the National Rescue Party, has raised concerns about how the project will be rolled out.

"The size of the land is very huge. We are very concerned about forest destruction and environment destruction, and also about the displacement of the people," opposition spokesman Yim Sovann told Radio Australia.

Mr Yim said while the opposition welcomed foreign investment, it must be open to public scrutiny.

"The government should make it public what they want to do and invite all investors around the world to participate in the bidding process. This way we can attract good investors and avoid corruption."

The deal is the latest sign of China expanding its footprint in the frontier economies of a booming South East Asia as the United States vies for influence in the region.

Loans and investment have won China some useful political allies in the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), which is set to become an integrated trade community by 2016.

All three projects in Cambodia would start this year and are expected to take up to four years to complete.








Cambodian, Chinese firms sign deal to build railway, seaport

A Cambodian company and a Chinese firm on Monday signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in order to build a railway and a seaport in Cambodia to serve iron and steel mining industry.

The deal was inked between Zhang Chuan You, general manager of Cambodia Iron and Steel Mining Industry Group, and Liu Ziming, chairman of China Railway Major Bridge Engineering Group, under the witnesses of Cambodian Minister of Public Works and Transport Tram Iv Tek and Bai Zhongren, president of China Railway Group Limited.

Zhang Chuan You said at the signing ceremony that the two firms will jointly invest in building a 404-kilometer railway from Preah Vihear province to Koh Kong province and a seaport in Koh Kong province to support metal mining industry in Preah Vihear province.

He said the railway will run through the province of Preah Vihear, Kampong Thom, Kampong Chhnang, Kampong Speu and Koh Kong, while the seaport will be capable to handle about 50 million tons of goods a year.

The railway will connect the country's northeastern part and southwestern part, he said, adding that the project will begin on July 2013 and is expected to be completed within 4 years.

"It will greatly contribute to developing Cambodian economy when the project is completed," he said.

Zhang Chuan Li, chairman of Cambodia Iron and Steel Mining Industry, said before the signing ceremony that the firm also set to build a steel plant in Preah Vihear province as the firm conducted a feasibility study in 2009 and found that the province is rich in iron ore.

Speaking at the signing ceremony, Tram Iv Tek said that this is an ambitious project and if it happens, it will greatly spur Cambodian economy and reduce poverty.

"It will be a new railroad and an international large-scale seaport, I wish the project success in order to contribute to developing the economy," he said.




High-speed train ticket prices are too high

The world's longest high-speed railway, connecting Beijing and Guangzhou, began operating on Wednesday, says an article in Beijing News Daily. Excerpts:

The 2,298 km line links five regional economic centers — Beijing, Zhengzhou, Wuhan, Changsha and Guangzhou. Travelling time between Beijing and Guangzhou is eight hours.

Although its influence on economic growth and tourism has yet to be seen, the social effects of its exorbitant ticket prices have been felt around the country.

The top price for a ticket from Beijing to Guangzhou is more than 2,000 yuan ($317),  comparable to air ticket prices.

Migrant workers and students are the main rail travelers in China, followed by tourists and businessmen. So the majority of travelers using trains are relatively sensitive to surging ticket prices.

Because of expensive tickets, trains running between Wuhan and Guangzhou, a section that was completed and became operational earlier than the rest of the Beijing-Guangzhou line, often run with empty carriages.

The railway authorities should reflect on the building program. Borrowing from banks, and building costly railways as soon as possible, causes problems. The financial burden is transferred to passengers, whose average income is growing more slowly than sharply rising ticket prices on every class of train.

Only when prices are acceptable to most consumers can high-speed rail travel have a positive effect in promoting local economic growth. Otherwise, such rail lines will not make ends meet in the long run.




Cambodia Iron and China Railway invest US$11b in Cambodia projects

Two Chinese firms have reached a deal to build a 400-kilometre rail line, a steel plant and a sea port in Cambodia worth a combined US$11.2 billion.

It would be by far the biggest-ever investments in the impoverished country.

Cambodia Iron and Steel Mining Industry had contracted China Railway Group to build a railway to link a steel plant in Preah Vihear province in the north to a port at the southern commercial island of Koh Kong, the Cambodia-based firm's chairman, Zhang Chuan Li, said yesterday.

The rail link and port would cost US$9.6 billion to build, and the steel plant US$1.6 billion.

Cambodia Iron and Steel is a Chinese firm based in Phnom Penh and established in 2006.

The deal is the latest sign of China expanding its footprint in the frontier economies of a booming Southeast Asia as the United States vies for influence in the region.

Loans and investment have won China some useful political allies in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which is set to become an integrated trade community by 2016.

All three projects in Cambodia would start this year and take up to four years to complete, Zhang said.

"There is an important demand for transport of mined materials for export to China and to the world," he said.

Zhang was unable to provide details about where the financing for the Cambodian rail, steel and port projects would come from.

The agreement was made on Monday and came three days after Sinomach China Perfect Machinery Industry and Cambodian Petrochemical announced they would jointly build a US$2.3 billion oil refinery, Cambodia's first, capable of processing five million tonnes of crude a year.

Chinese companies are also set to build a US$7 billion, 400km high-speed-rail link through neighbouring Laos and are trying to win contracts to build new lines in Thailand.

Zhang said a groundbreaking ceremony for the railway would be held by the end of this month and construction of the steel plant would start in July.

A 3km bridge would connect an island in the southern coastal province of Koh Kong with the mainland, and the project would boost the economies of the four provinces covered by the link, the company said in a statement.



Locals in the Dark to Chinese Rail Project

With two Chinese firms due to start work on a 400-km railway, steel mill and port in July, an environmental impact assessment (EIA) has yet to be conducted, and affected provinces are still largely in the dark about the massive infrastructure project.
In a ceremony in Phnom Penh on Monday, Chinese conglomerate Cambodia Iron and Steel Mining Industry Group and China Railway Group Limited signed a deal on the purported $9.6 billion project in the presence of Transport Minister Tram Iv Tek.

The ambitious plan would see a railway built by 2017 from a plant in Preah Vihear province, through Kompong Thom, Kompong Chhnang, Kompong Speu and Koh Kong provinces, to a seaport on Koh Smach Island, off the coast of Koh Kong.

Environment Minister Mok Mareth said in a message yesterday that an EIA on the project was “not yet submitted.”

“Naturally, the company shall fulfill this obligation to get the support from Chinese [government] and [the financers of the project],” he said.

China Railway conducted a feasibility study on the rail project in 2011, but results have not been made public and officials have not given any specifics on the precise path the railway line will take, or how many people will be displaced.

Peou Maly, deputy director of the transportation department within the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, said that he believed the project “will have some impact on some people’s homes because it is more than 400 km long.

“When it impacts on a citizen’s house, they [the companies] will pay compensation” in accordance with the Land Law, he said.

Mam Sambath, chairman of Cambodians for Resource Revenue Transparency, a coalition of NGOs, said he was concerned about the tight timescale on a project that would clearly impact many people and affect the environment.

“It is just seven months to go. In order to manage this project and conduct an assessment well takes a long time. And consultation with the community is very important,” he said.

“It’s a bit short notice.”

Koh Kong provincial governor Bun Leut said he had heard about the development, which includes plans for a 3-km bridge in Kiri Sakor district, but that no discussions had been held on what impact it would have on the people or their environment.

“I heard that there will be a Chinese company developing on the island, but I didn’t get an official document yet,” he said.

Kompong Speu governor Kang Heang and Kompong Thom deputy governor Uch Samon also both said they had heard of the plan but had not been officially notified.




Cambodia tests trains

Cambodia has started testing cargo train operations from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville. Passenger services will have to wait until a later phase.

Phnom Penh Post, Wednesday, reported that temporary train services were operating on the rail line from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville since last Friday.

Public Works and Transportation minister, Tram Iv Tek, said the new railway will help to reduce congestion on the road to the seaport at Sihanoukville. It will cut road damage, accidents, pollution and transportation costs.

Trains will operate under test conditions to assess and resolve any technical issues. They will run at about 60 kph, but  ultimately passenger trains should reach speeds of around 70 to 80 kph, once they are introduced possibly in 2014.

The rail line from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville covers 264 km. The 386 km “Northern Line”, that will link Phnom Penh to Poipet where it will connect with Thailand’s rail network at Aranyapathet should open between 2014 to 2015 but also in phases.

Cambodia has outsourced all of its railway operations under a 30-year concession to Toll (Cambodia) Company (Trading as Toll Royal Railway).

Asian Development Bank and AusAID  provide loans and grants for the US$140 million network and infrastructure upgrade. It includes the South Line (264 Km) from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville, the North Line (386 km) from Phnom Penh to Poipet (line rehabilitation) and the Missing Link (48 km) from Poipet to Sisophon (line reinstatement).

Also included in the funding is the construction of a new freight terminal on the outskirts of Phnom Penh (Samrong).

Toll Royal Railway rehabilitated 10 1200Hp Alstom locomotives and has two new 1300Hp Chinese locomotives, two car diesel passenger trains and over 100 freight wagons.

Chinese railway construction explosion kills eight

An explosion at a railway tunnel construction site in Linfen City left at least eight people dead and five injured, the Shanxi provincial government said on December 31. The accident was said to have occurred as early as December 25, and social media users claimed the delay in announcing details was an attempted cover-up by Shanxi officials.
A statement published on the province’s official website and on state-run Sina News said the circumstances of the accident were still under investigation and that further details would be announced to the public at a later date.

Excavation work was in process on the central and southern portions of the Liangshan tunnel when explosives used for demolition went off, the statement said.

The five injured are being treated at a hospital.





China commences service on longest high speed rail network

Beijing - China Wednesday commenced service of the world's longest high-speed rail route of 2,298-kilometre (1,425-mile) between Beijing and Guangzhou to cover the distance from the capital to the southern commercial hub in around eight hours, almost one-third of the 22 hours previously required.

Running at an average speed of 300 kilometers per hour on the new high speed rail network, the new bullet train G80 is the latest milestone in the country's rapid and -- sometimes troubled -- super fast rail network.

Two trains were flagged off in the opposite directions from stations in Beijing and Guangzhou Wednesday morning, Spanning over half of China, the train has 35 stops in major cities such as Zhengzhou, Wuhan on the Yangtze River and Changsha.

China Central Television broadcast the departure of the first train live from Beijing West Railway Station. It also carried live reports from inside showing passengers toting cameras to snap commemorative photos.

State media reported that December 26 was chosen to start the passenger service on the Beijing-Guangzhou line to commemorate the birth anniversary of revered Chinese leader Mao Zedong in 1893.

A total of 155 pairs of trains will run on the new line each day, and alternative schedules have been made for weekends and peak travel times, according to the Ministry of Railways (MOR).

Allaying concerns that the new line would increase passengers' travel costs, the railway authorities have decided to continue with the services of 183 pairs of trains that used to run daily on the parallel old Beijing-Guangzhou line..

A second-class seat on the new high-speed line costs 865 yuan ($138) as against around 430 yuan for a sleeper on the old line.

"The opening of the Beijing-Guangzhou high-speed line shows China's high-speed railway network has started to take shape," said Zhou Li, director general of science and technology of the MOR, reported Xinhua.

With the opening of the Beijing-Guangzhou high-speed line, China now has more than 9,300 km of high-speed railway in operation.

The new line is one of four north-south lines expected to serve as the country's high-speed railway backbone, which also features four east-west lines.

According to the 12th five-year plan for railway development, by 2015, China will have around 120,000 km of railway in operation, including 18,000 km of high-speed railway and an express railway network of 40,000 km, which allows speeds of over 160 km per hour, stated Xinhua.

Preparations for a new high-speed line linking the central Chinese cities of Zhengzhou and Xuzhou are underway. The line will intersect the Beijing-Guangzhou high-speed rail line and the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed rail line, which started operations on June 30 last year.

"The rail network closely connects economic hubs like the Pan-Bohai economic zone, central China, the Yangtze River Delta economic zone and the Pearl River Delta economic zone and will greatly boost socioeconomic development in these regions," said Zhou.

Other than passenger travel, the new Beijing-Guangzhou high-speed line is also expected to cut logistics costs and enhance the investment environment along the route.

The Beijing-Guangzhou route was made possible with the completion of a line between Zhengzhou and Beijing. High-speed sections linking Zhengzhou and Wuhan and Wuhan and Guangzhou were already in service.

China's high-speed rail network was established in 2007, but has fast become the world's largest with 8,358 kilometres of track at the end of 2010. By 2020, the network is expected to be almost doubled to 16,000 kilometres.

Notwithstanding the expansion of high speed network, China's railways has been plagued by graft and safety scandals, In July 2011, China witnessed a deadly bullet train collision in which 40 people were killed, leading to public outrage.

The accident was China's worst rail disaster since 2008.

Wide criticism that authorities are compromising safety in their rush to expand the network has led the authorities to focus more on maintenance and inspection of infrastructure, including track, rolling stock and emergency response measures.

The Global Times newspaper, which is seen to have close links with the ruling Communist Party, on Wednesday quoted a Ministry of Railways official acknowledging continuing problems despite intense efforts to solve them during trial runs.

"We can't make sure it's error-proof in the future," Zhao Chunlei, deputy chief of the ministry's transportation department, told the newspaper.






Record Breaking Metro System of the Day: Beijing

On December 30th, Beijing opened 43.4 miles of track, including one brand-new line, making its metro system the longest in the world. The Chinese capital now has 275 miles of track; the previous record-holder, Shanghai, has 272.

If you laid the metro system of Beijing end to end, it would be substantially longer than the distance between New York City and Washington D.C. And that's literally only half of it -- the 32-year-old system plans to put a new line into operation in each of the next three years. By 2020, the system is projected to extend over 600 miles. That's three times the length of the New York City subway.

But as in heavyweight boxing, there are several belts to be won, and New York City still holds one -- it has the most stations of any system in the world, at 421.




Day of openings takes Beijing metro to 442km

BEIJING celebrated another milestone in the rapid expansion of its metro network on December 30 with the opening of a new line and four extensions, which together take the total length of the system to 442km.

The first phase of Line 6 runs for 31km from Haidian Wuluju in the west to Caofang in the east, and will relieve congestion on the parrallel Line 1. The 21-station line is initially expected to carry around 700,000 passengers per day and is the first metro line in Beijing to employ eight-car trains, each of which accommodates 1960 passengers. It is also the first to electrified with 1.5kV dc overhead catenary.

Meanwhile the opening of the Bagou - Xiju and Jinsong - Shoujingmao sections of Line 10 means only a short section in the south of the city is required to complete the outer circle line. The final section between Xiju and Shoujingmao will be comissioned in 2013.

December 30 also saw the opening of the northern section of Line 8 from Beitucheng to Guloudajie, and the stretch of Line 9 between Beijing West Railway Station and National Library.






Four new subway lines open in Beijing

Beijing opened four new subway lines on Sunday.

The number of subway lines in Beijing has increased to 16.

According to the Beijing Metro Company, the new lines increased the city's total subway transport capacity by about 1.5 million to over 9 million passengers per day, Xinhua News Agency said.

The total passenger transport capacity is expected to reach over 10 million on peak days, it said.

The newly-opened lines include the new No. 6 Line, the southern section of the current No. 8 Line, the northern section of the current No. 9 Line and the southern and western stretches that complete a loop for the current No. 10 Line, Xinhua said.

Beijing has the country's longest urban subway system – 442 kilometers, it said.

From 2013 to 2015, Beijing will put at least one new subway line into operation each year, according to the Beijing Metro Company.

Xinhua said by 2015, the number of subway lines in Beijing will reach 19, with a combined length of 561 km. By 2020, the total subway length is expected to increase to 1,000 km, it said.






Metro to stage live concert series

Shanghai's subway operator will stage the first in a series of free concerts this weekend at People's Square and Dashijie stations on Line 8, including live performances by members of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, the Oriental Morning News reported.

The hour-long concert series will take place at 9:30 am every Saturday and Sunday as part of a three-year program that Shanghai Shentong Metro Group launched this year to bring more culture to local subway riders, according to a company press release.

"The Shanghai Symphony Orchestra has agreed to participate in this non-profit program. We have also invited students from a music instruction company. We look forward to bringing in more music groups," said Feng Hao, a media officer with Shanghai Shentong Metro Group.

The company will announce each week's performers on its microblog three days in advance of the concerts, Feng said.

Members of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra will play Sunday at both the People's Square and Dashijie stations. Students from the Best Friend Music Company will perform Saturday.

Shanghai Shentong scheduled the concerts to take place during off-peak hours to prevent overcrowding.

Besides the concerts, the company has also installed a player piano at People's Square Station that will play during rush hours to soothe local metro riders, Feng told the Global Times.

The music will not be broadcast through the station's public address system. The company also plans to display 40 sculptures at 18 selected stations along the metro system's three new lines - 11, 12, and 13. The placement of the sculptures will highlight the cultural aspects of each station's location.

For example, the sculpture placed inside Line 11's Longhua Station will be related to Buddhism because the station is close to the Longhua Temple.

The company has already put 60 sculptures on display at 52 subway stations across the city.




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