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Catching up in Northern China

Tianjin is often known as as the ‘port of Beijing’, being 130km (80 miles) from the Chinese capital and housing a large and economically significant port on the Yellow Sea’s Bohai Gulf, one of the world’s busiest shipping routes. As the gateway to northern China, the city has also long been an important industrial hub, supported by the central government in Beijing until the 1980s.

With the nation’s economic opening under the administration of Deng Xiaoping, the focus shifted to cities in southern China and along the east coast. Only after the previous President Hu Jintao and his government decided to further promote Tianjin and establish a new financial hub in the ‘Binhai New Development Area’, has the city’s development gathered momentum again.

Tianjin is one of four ‘direct-controlled municipalities’, meaning it does not belong to any province (although it maintains the same rank) and is instead under the direct adminstration of China’s central government. Its population is reported as 15.5 million, but this requires consideration of Chinese administrative structures. The urban core, with its four suburbs, has a population of around 6.9 million, with other residents living in counties, towns or cities which belong to the municipality – for example, the Wuqing district bordering Beijing has some 900 000 inhabitants of his own.

Beyond the core, the focus for urban development is the Binhai New Area; Binhai is located at the easternmost edge of Tianjin, while Yujiapu is the location for the planned ‘Financial Hub’ some 50km (30 miles) away from Tianjin’s downtown core. Accordingly, Tianjin and Binhai could easily be seen as two separate cities.

Since the 2000s, urban rail planning and construction is gaining speed to match as regional conglomeration plans advance with the planned creation of the Jing-Jin-Ji (Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei) megalopolis.

Examining the network

Tianjin’s current urban rail network planning proposes three kinds of lines – ‘M’ lines: metro services in the urban core; ‘B’ lines: metro lines covering Binhai; and ‘Z’ lines: suburban services for rural areas.

Whereas M and B lines use a traditional metro configuration in both Tianjin and Binhai, Z lines will feature a more commuter rail-like service, similar to the German S-Bahn or French RER specification. ‘C’ lines have previously been listed in overviews for Tianjin’s urban rail transit; there were originally four lines connecting the urban core and Binhai, which will now be part of the InterCity network from China Railway.

Tianjin was the second Chinese city to introduce metro service, after Beijing. The first proposals were drafted for China’s biggest cities of the time – Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Shenyang – in 1965 to address pollution and congestion associated with increased road traffic.

Construction on line 1 began in 1970, according to contemporary descriptions with full-time workers supplemented by a large volunteer labour force. Using a dry canal bed led to faster development, with the consequence that the tunnel is only 2-3m under the surface for the original section.

In 1976 the first section was completed, with four stations along a 3.6km (2.2-mile) length, but major delays were forced by reconstruction following the Tangshan earthquake of 1976 and political challenges following the death of leader Mao Zedong. Work on subsequent sections was halted for many years. Operations finally began on the ‘completed’ 7.4km (4.7-mile) route between Tianjin Xizhan and Xinhua Lu (with eight stations) in 1984.

The next 15 years were challenging, with ridership lower than expected due to unreliable service and passengers finding the new mode less than inviting. The line remained the solitary urban rail presence in the city, but in 2001 operations were shut down for a comprehensive upgrade and the building of an extension. Five years later, the route had expanded to 26.2km (16.3 miles) with 22 stations running through the city’s urban core.

Meanwhile, operations started on the ‘JinBin-Line’ (TianJIN-BINhai) – today’s line 9 – in 2004. This elevated route connects the city with the Tanggu District, where the Tianjin Economic Development Area (TEDA) had been established. Both have been integrated into the Binhai New Area ever since. Line 9 also faced a forced closure in 2015, with the line divided into two sections for over a year due to damage caused by a series of explosions at a container loading area in the Port of Tianjin, even destroying large parts of the Donghai Lu station. Full services along the line’s entirety resumed on December 2016.

Further catering for growth within TEDA, in 2006 a modern rubber-tyred Translohr tramway system was installed with interchange with metro line 9; passenger services on the 8km (five-mile) north-south line with 14 stops began in 2007. The line uses 25m three-section STE3 vehicles, with onboard battery power to allow running under bridges along the route.

The city previously featured an extensive network of street-running trams for just over 70 years; this dwindled over time with the last steel-wheeled vehicle running in 1972.

Two more lines (2 and 3) joined the metro in 2012, but line 2 suffered severe flooding and was forced to operate as two separate shuttle services for over a year. The latest, line 6, opened in two stages in late 2016.

One system, two operators

As of July 2017, five metro lines and one tramline are in service. Operations and maintenance are handled by Tianjin Metro Group and the Binhai Mass Transit Development Co. (BMT); the latter operates line 9 and the TEDA tramway, with Tianjin Metro responsible for all other lines.

Line 1 runs north-west to south-east, passing the Tianjin West railway station, along the Nanjing Lu, one of the major arteries in downtown Tianjin. The line is mostly underground, with elevated sections at the northern and southern extremities. After the 2001 reconstruction programme, new rolling stock was introduced, adding 1.5m-height platform screen doors and extending the line to Shuanglin.

Line 2 is a 27.2km (16.9-mile) west-east route, connecting downtown and the main Tianjin Railway Station with Tianjin Binhai International Airport (as of mid-2014) – a major cargo hub for operators serving key Asian markets. A short 1.3km (0.8-mile) portion around Konggangjingjiqu is at grade, otherwise the line is entirely underground.

Line 3 runs for 29.7km (18.5 miles) from Gaoxinqu in the southwest to Xiaodian in the northeast, with a small elevated section for the three stations at the northern end of the line and five at the southernmost end. The significance of line 3, as opened on 1 October 2012, was in its connections to two of the city’s main railway stations (Tianjin and Tianjin North) and in offering interchange to the other two lines, creating a true network for the first time. This line was extended to Tianjin South station in late 2013. Line 3 has a fleet of B type six-car trainsets supplied by CSR Sifang.

Next to open was the semi-circular line 6, connecting Tianjin North and Tianjin West railway stations. The first eight-station western section, from Changhong Gongyuan to Nancuiping, opened in August 2016 with connections to lines 2 and 3. A second section from Nansunzhuang to Nancuiping opened three months later on 31 December, expanding the line to 21 stations. Eventually the 39-station, 50km (31-mile) line will, with the future line 5, form a loop around central Tianjin. Line 6’s island platforms have full platform screen doors and the long platforms at Tianjin West railway station have been built for the future provision of eight-car services.

Line 9 starts with a short underground section from Tianjin Railway Station to
its previous terminus at Zhongshanmen. From here the line follows an elevated alignment towards Binhai. Even with two operators, there is shared ticketing, barrier-free interchange and integrated system mapping.

Stations and rolling stock

Significant for the stations in Tianjjin is the fact that Chinese locations have not been translated, but purely converted into Latin wording. For example, Binhai International Airport remains Binhaiguojijichang, or the Tianjin North Railway Station remains Beizhan. Other Chinese cities usually provide translations, just keeping lu or jie for road and street. This can make navigation challenging.

Station design mostly follows the current Chinese standard: generally island platforms with aluminum panels, and platform screen doors with coloured markings according to the line’s colour-coding. Floor markings in front of each door show where passengers are expected to board and disembark.

Line 1 uses mostly side platforms and its stations follow an older design, although renovation has improved this massively.

Tianjin Railway Station’s metro access is a vast underground structure. Being cost-sensitive, one wonders whether this was necessary. Subway access is in the northern side, so when arriving at the southern – and more representative – side, intending passengers need to walk through a long tunnel to cross the railway infrastructure below.

Level B1 provides the railway’s arrival area, with several retail outlets and restaurants. Below this in B2 is the concourse for the subway, while level B3 hosts platforms for lines 2 and 9. The layout is unusual as line 2 westbound has a side platform, while the eastbound service shares an island platform with line 9 eastbound, which on the other side has another island platform. Another track for line 9 is located there, which is currently not in use. Line 3 access is located in B4.

Currently all lines use B type trains of a similar design, manufactured by CNR Changchun (lines 1 and 9), CNR Dalian (line 2) and CSR Qingdao Sifang (lines 3 and 6). For future lines 7 and 8, B1-A type trains have been considered, whereas lines 10 and 11 will also use B type trains. Lines Z2 and Z4 have been designed based upon A type trains: Z2 will use six-car units while Z4 will operate eight-car trains, both with a maximum speed of 120km/h (75mph).

Lines 1, 2, 3 and 6 all use third rail electrification at 825V dc, while line 9 uses 1500V dc overhead supply at 1500V dc with pantograph current collection. All lines are 1435mm gauge.

Catering for 130m passengers

With its Z lines, Tianjin is setting up a network of commuter rail lines within the city boundaries. The high-speed inter-city line between Tianjin and Beijing was the first in China and carries passengers at over 320km/h (200mph); it is already at near capacity and a second route and extended network connecting the city with its neighbouring province and nearby cities is under construction.

What will be interesting is what effect the Jing-Jin-Ji (Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei) plan of the central government has for further integrating Beijing, Tianjin and the province Hubei surrounding them into one ‘megalopolis’ with a population of over 130 million.

Finally, China’s major cities are still developing at breakneck speed – five years from now the whole design, with its 24 urban transit lines, may not be sufficient…

Feature originally published in October 2017 TAUT (958).