China Railway History

Written by Vivi Updated Aug. 9, 2022

China is the third Asian country to build railway since the 19th century, after Japan and India. The history of China’s railway began in the late nineteenth century during the Qing Dynasty. Until now, China’s railway has a history of more than 100 years. After more than a century of construction and development, China has built one of the world’s most extensive rail network and advanced high-speed rail technology.


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Qing Dynasty (1865 – 1911): First Stage

Due to the lack of industrialization and skeptical attitude of the imperial leaders in the late Qing Dynasty, China’s earliest railways were built in the late 19th century, when Europe, North America, Japan and India had extensive rail networks. The imperial leaders of the Qing Dynasty regarded railroad as a useless infrastructure that would destruct military defense barrier and farmland, interfere with Fengshui (a core idea of traditional Chinese architecture theories to achieve harmony and balance) and put laborers out of work. The history of rail transport during the Qing Dynasty came through a tough period.

China Railway

First Railway in China

The first passenger railway in China, Woosung Railway, was built in 1876 by a British Company without the authorization of the leaders of the government of Qing Dynasty.

It is a narrow-gauge railway from the American Concession in Shanghai downtown northward to Wusong Port at the mouth of Huangpu River in Baoshan District. This 14.5-kilometer-long (9-mile-long) railroad stopped at three stations: Shanghai Railway Station, Jiangwan Railway Station and Wusong Railway Station.

Woosung Railway ran about one year. In 1877, after 16 months of operation, Woosung Railway was bought by the government of Qing Dynasty and then it was disassembled.

Ordinary train in China

China’s First Self-Constructed Railway

The first railway that was built by Chinese people is Tangxu Railway, also known as Kaiping Colliery Tramway. Opened in 1881, this railway ran from Tangshan to Xugezhuang in Hebei Province. This 9.7-kilometer-long railway used standard gauge of 1,435 millimeters, was built for the purposes of coal transport.

This railway was first proposed in 1876. In 1881, Li Hongzhang, general and diplomat of the Qing Dynasty, proposed to the imperial court to build a railway for coal carriage. The construction began in May 1881 and was put into service in November. In the initial stage of using, trains on Tangxu Railway was driven by horses and mules. In the next year, trains were allowed to be driven by steam engines. With the increase in output of the Kaiping Coal Mine, and the demand for coal, Tangxu Railway was extended eastward to Lutai in 1887 and westward to Tianjin in 1888. This railway has now formed a section of the current Beijing – Shenyang Railway.

Ordinary train in China

China’s First Self-Designed and Constructed Railway

Beijing – Zhangjiakou Railway (Jingzhang Line) is the first railway designed and constructed by Chinese people without foreign assistance. This railway connected Fengtai District of Beijing and Zhangjiakou of Hebei Province, with a total length of 201 kilometers.

Opened in 1909, Beijing – Zhangjiakou Railway was designed by Zhan Tianyou, a distinguished railroad engineer who has since been considered as the “Father of China’s Railroad.” Under the circumstances at that time, it was widely considered difficult to build. Steep slopes and tunnels lined along the rail line. Measures were taken to overcome the difficulties. The most well-known project of this railway is the Qinglong Bridge Station Herringbone Railway built to overcome the height difference between the South Exit and Badaling.

In 1916, Beijing - Zhangjiakou Railway was merged into the Beijing - Suizhou Railway. Now, it has become a part of to the Beijing - Baotou Railway.

Beijing Railway Station

Republic of China (1911 – 1949): Slow Development

During the Republic of China, Chinese railway developed slowly.

After the establishment of the Republic of China in 1912, railways were continued to be built on the existing rail network of the Qing Dynasty. During this period, the railways were mainly state-owned. Some railroads were opened to the private sector. The Republican government in Nanjing proposed construction plans for several railways. But due to imperialist interference and frequent wars, only a few of them were finished. From 1928 to 1937, the Republican government only built 3,600 kilometers of railway.

The Second Sino-Japanese War of 1937 – 1945 greatly affected the construction of railway afterwards. A few railroads were built for military purposes. Many old and newly-built railways were destroyed in the war. By 1948, China had 27,000 kilometers of rail, only 8,000 kilometers was usable.

Hard Seat on China train

People’s Republic of China (1949 – present): Railway Building Boom

From the operation of Woosung Railway in 1876 to the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, more than 27,000 kilometers of railways have been built in the Chinese mainland during these 73 years, but over half of them are in a state of paralysis due to the destruction of wars. In 1949, the Ministry of Railways was established to take over railway construction. The main lines began to be restored and the rail construction work was done massively.

First Railway Built after the Founding of the People’s Republic of China

Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, railways have been built on a large scale for the purposes of developing economy. The government decided to build railways in western regions of the country first, where no railways had been built before. In 1950, Chengdu – Chongqing Railway was under construction, which was put into service after two years of construction in 1952. It is the first railway built after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, as well as the first railway connecting the cities of Chengdu and Chongqing.

China Ordinary train

Massive Construction Since the First Five-Year Plan

Since 1953, China implemented the first five-year development plan, and the scale of railway construction has been continuously expanded. China's railways have entered a period of planned and large-scale construction. During this period, numerous railway arteries have been built including Guiyang – Kunming, Chengdu – Kunming and Lanzhou – Urumqi railways in the west of China; Beijing – Inner Mongolia and Beijing – Chengde railways in the north; and Beijing – Shanghai, Shanghai – Hangzhou and Yingtan – Xiamen railways in the middle and east of China. The national railway operating mileage increased to 49,940 kilometers, with the national rail network basically completed. In the meantime, China’s railway technology and equipment have also been greatly improved.

After the economic reforms were launched in 1978, a large amount of resources was invested to the modernization of the railway network. After a long period of recovery and development, the national railway system has achieved good development. The railways were reorganized to improving safety, speed and technology. And the process of railway electrification was greatly accelerated. Nearly half of the railways were gradually electrified over the last two decades.

China’s railway networks extended in all directions during over the last 50 years. Railroad connect more and more cities and towns. Since 1997, China Rail implemented six large-scale adjustments on national railways. After these adjustments, train speed has been greatly increased. As of 2007, the maximum operating speed of trains on some sections is 250 kilometers per hour. China is prepared to enter the high-speed era.

Also read China Railway Network.

China Bullet Train

High-Speed Era

In fact, in the early 1990s, China proposed a high-speed railway construction plan. In 2004, without independent high-speed rail manufacturing technology, China imported technology from other countries including Japan, Germany and France.

On August 1, 2008, the Beijing - Tianjin Intercity Railway was put into operation, which is the first high-speed railway in Chinese mainland with a design speed of 350 km/h. Since then, China started to manufacture and innovate its own high-speed rail technology. Up to now, China has mastered the complete set of technologies for designing and manufacturing high-speed EMU trains of different speed grades that meet various operational requirements. In the meantime, a high-speed rail network was gradually established. As of 2020, the high-speed railways in China totaled 37,900 kilometers (23,550 miles), which is the longest in the world.

Second Class Seat on China Bullet Trains

China is continuing pursue advanced high-speed technologies. The facilities and speed of bullet trains have improved greatly. The fastest high-speed trains in China reach 420 km/h (260 mph). The newly launched maglev train developed by Qingdao Sifang Locomotive & Rolling Stock Co. LTD is expected to reach the top speed of 620 km/h (385 mph), ranking the fastest in the world.

At present, China's high-speed rail technology is already in the forefront of the world and has gone abroad. China plans to build several high-speed rail lines in some European and Asian countries, including China – Thailand High-Speed Railway, Jakarta – Bandung High-Speed Railway and Moscow – Kazan High-Speed Railway, etc. Some of them are already under construction.

More information about China High-Speed Rail.

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