China already claims one of the most comprehensive railway systems in the world, and is expected to accelerate construction of its high-speed network even further in the near term. A recent article by China Daily cites an unnamed industry insider who estimates that by the end of 2017 the country will have spent upwards of 800 billion yuan (US$122 billion) on rail infrastructure, a surprising amount of it here in Yunnan.
The province opened two high-speed lines earlier this year. One connects Kunming to Shanghai via the provinces of Guizhou, Hunan, Jiangxi and Zhejiang. The other, southern route, departs from Yunnan's capital and snakes through Guangxi before ending in Guangzhou. More railway investment money is on the way, as work is set to begin on the Chongqing-Kunming Railway (渝昆高铁) by the end of the year.
Expected to cover 720 kilometers and connect at least 14 stations, the Chongqing-Kunming line comes with a 117 billion yuan (US$17.8 billion) price tag. Much of that money will be spent on the time and effort needed to bore dozens of tunnels and upgrade or raise even more bridges. Just under 70 percent of the rail line's total length passes through mountains or over valleys. Despite such engineering challenges, total construction time is estimated at around five years. When complete, travel time between the two cities is expected to be around three hours.
In Yunnan, the high-speed line will pass through eight stops, the majority of them in the province's impoverished northeastern prefecture of Zhaotong (昭通). The railway is also scheduled to stop at Changshui International Airport before reaching its terminus at Kunming South Station.
The railway between Kunming and Chongqing is part of a much larger national scheme called the 'Eight Vertical, Eight Horizontal' (八纵八横) plan. The long-term strategy involves creating 16 bullet train lines — half of them north-south, half east-west — to further connect China's major cities. At some undetermined point in the future, Kunming will be connected to Beijing, via the Chongqing line, by high-speed trains.
In China, enormous infrastructure projects through mountainous rural areas are often seen as a panacea for raising impoverished regions out of poverty. The architects of China's economy also argue that both Chongqing and Kunming will benefit from such connectivity as the latter grows into a hub of trade and energy distribution linking Southeast Asia with the cities of western China.
In this view, existing slower railway lines will be freed of large amounts of passenger traffic as people begin to use the bullet option. As a result, more cargo trains can be added to railroad timetables, enabling goods to flow more easily to and from ports along China's southern border. Time, and billions of yuan, will tell.