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China: LRT’s new superpower

A CRRC Zhuzhou-built low-floor tram at the Convention Center stop on Guangzhou’s new Huangpu line – 29 January 2021. Tim Wu / CC BY-SA 4.0

It is often said that the 21st Century belongs to China. Nowhere is this statement more true than in terms of the nation’s transport development.

The pace of construction is little short of astonishing. China currently spends approximately CNY52trn (EUR6.8trn) on infrastructure. At the turn of the millennium, the country had no high-speed rail; now there are around 38 000km (23 600 miles) of lines, with half of that total completed since 2015. By 2020, 75% of cities with a population above half a million residents had a high-speed rail link.

Jiaxing is an important economic and industrial hub in central north-western Zhejiang Province. Its first tramline opened on 25 June 2021; six more are planned in the next 15 years. Jiaxing Transportation Bureau

Urban rail investment is a similar story. At the end of 2020, the country’s metro systems totalled over 7300km (4535 miles) across 220 lines in 44 cities; 700km (435 miles)
of new routes opened over a 16-day period in December 2020 alone. A total of 17.6bn journeys were made last year.

Yet while the tramway revolution has been far more modest by comparison, ‘just’ 550km (340 miles) across 22 cities, China has nonetheless opened more new systems over the last five years than any other country – and by a huge margin.

Of the 58 new light rail systems opened around the world since 2016, 20 have been in China. The next closest country is the US with nine, with Turkey and France jointly in third with four each. Unsurprisingly perhaps, these systems have been spread across China’s fastest-growing cities (the country now has over 100 with a population above one million residents, and six with over ten million) often used as feeders to more expansive metro networks.

How trams ‘fit’

When looking at Chinese infrastructure investment it is important to understand the country’s centralised planning systems. The adoption of ‘Five-Year Plans’ gives a resolute clarity of purpose, with societal and economic growth strategies closely allying transport to wider developmental policies.

Metro installations are used for core corridors. Once these are established, it logically follows to move down the modal food chain to the next most capacious form of transport: the tramway. Suburban and tangential routes avoid the disruption of underground construction and can be built relatively quickly. The average time from ground-breaking to inauguration is usually less than three years.

As elsewhere, the reasons for tramway development are nuanced. For cities that do not meet the standards of the centralised planning committee for metro construction, light rail is a highly-prized status symbol for aspiring regions. Used to spur residential and industrial growth along the chosen corridor, green mobility is one of the attributes which is afforded high ranking as a key pillar of prosperity in modern China.

With the vast sprawl in these expanding cities, some have separate tramways in different parts of a conurbation. Most operate wire-free, with charging of batteries and/or supercapacitors at stops.

Transport is also a major employer. With a domestic rail industry dominated by a few large state-owned enterprises, infrastructure investment creates valuable jobs. As an example, rail equipment combine CRRC employs over 160 000 people alone, with 91 000 involved in production.

The leadership’s push for technological dominance is another key driver. Not only are the country’s rail factories developing technologies for home-grown systems, those systems are also a testbed to iron out bugs in new products as the country seeks exports beyond its borders. As noted in TAUT 996, China’s cities operate over 95% of the world’s electric buses; the country is quickly becoming a leader in advanced battery technology; with investments in entire supply chain, from raw materials to production and even recycling.

Early tramway rolling stock was built under licence from European manufacturers, but domestic suppliers have quickly developed expertise in low-floor technology, and are showing signs of overtaking some western manufacturers with significant investments in wire-free and autonomous technologies.

Going beyond the first generation

The striking livery of Sanya’s operation reflects the tramway’s island location. A five-section CRRC Changchun tram enters Jinjiling Road from Sanya Hedong Road on 2 November 2019. Arnie97 / CC BY-SA 4.0

More than 60 cities in China once featured tramways but, in a trend shared with other countries, the development of cities and the popularisation of automobiles saw systems dwindle in the middle of the 20th Century.

Yet while one often marvels at the 30 or so tramway networks opened in France over the last four decades, the 20 new systems opened in the last five years easily put China ahead of the modern LRT ‘revolutions’ seen elsewhere.

The applications are diverse as well. From automated driverless tramways serving airport terminals in Kunming, to fuel cell power in Tangshan and Foshan, they bristle with technology. In this study we offer an overview of the systems that have opened in the past two years, alongside some of their unique characteristics.

One of four prefecture-level cities in Hainan Province, the city of Sanya (population 690 000) is twinned with Blackpool in the UK. It opened its first 8.4km (5.2 miles) of a planned four-line tramway network on 10 October 2019.

This CNY1.4bn (EUR185m) north-south line serves the railway station and Jiangang on Hainan Island. Construction work began in 2016 and it opened as a demonstration line on the northern section of the island as far as Jiefang Lu in the south in January 2019.

CRRC Changchun has supplied a fleet of five-section trams that operate using batteries and supercapacitors, with overhead charging at each stop.

The wave gathers momentum

CRSC Changsha has developed a new low-floor tram for the city of Tianshui. The four-section Pioneer uses onboard energy storage to operate independently of the overhead, charging via pantograph at stops. CRSC

With a population of over 3.5m, Tianshui is the second-largest city in central China’s Gansu Province. It is also a centre of prehistoric culture, attracting millions of tourist visitors each year.

The city’s first CNY2.45bn (EUR321m) demonstration tramline opened on 1 May 2020. Located in an area of high seismic activity, the line’s creation has required substantial groundworks and a design that mitigates the effects of potential instability.

The 12.9km (eight-mile) line connects the main railway station with the western suburb of Jihe Beilu and is another that does not feature rolling stock from the CRRC conglomerate. Instead, a fleet of 14 Pioneer low-floor trams have been constructed by the CRSC Changsha concern in Hunan Province. The five-section vehicles use battery-supercapacitor onboard energy storage to operate independently of the overhead.

The trams, CRSC Changsha’s first, were built at a CNY5bn (EUR641.6m) facility that opened in March 2018 and which has the capacity to build 100-150 trams per year. CRSC has also developed monorail vehicles and is involved in other tramway projects in Dujiangyan and Yuncheng.

A tin mining city in Yunnan Province with a population of over 430 000, Mengzi joined China’s tramway fraternity on 1 October 2020 with the inauguration of a 13.3km (8.3-mile) tramline from the North Railway Station south across the city to the Central Bus Station.

Christened the Honghe Tram, this has been built and is operated under a 30-year Public-Private Partnership (PPP) agreement between Yunnan Construction Engineering Group (YCEG) and Honghe Prefectural Government. A four-line system with 62km (38.5 miles) of tracks is planned under an investment of CNY6.6bn (EUR864m).

CRRC Nanjing Puzhen has supplied 34 five-section double-ended low-floor trams fitted with onboard energy storage to permit wire-free operation. Recharging takes place via pantograph at the line’s 15 stops.

The Pearl River Delta mega-city of Guangzhou (2020 population 18.7m, up by six million in the last decade) opened its second modern tramline in July 2020, reaching 14.3km (8.9 miles) with an extension to meet metro line 6 at Xiangxue on 28 December.

In order to avoid the duplication of construction with the planned metro line 23, the Huangpu line stopped at Xinfeng Road during the first phase of its infrastructure construction. In January 2021, bids opened for the contracts to build a 2.9km (1.8-mile) eastern extension along Yongshun Avenue, adding four stops.

Infrastructure on the Huangpu line has clearly been built with service expansion in mind. It currently operates four-section low-floor stock from CRRC Zhuzhou, although the platforms have been built to accommodate six-section units.

Guangzhou’s first modern tramline, the Haizhu (THZ1) service, opened in 2014. This 7.7km (4.8-mile) route runs along a north-facing riverbank and is intended as the first stage of an eventual 40km (25-mile) circuit. It is worked by 36.4m four-section trams from CRRC Zhuzhou with electrical equipment from Siemens. Built without overhead, supercapacitors are recharged at the 11 stops via pantographs and short overhead rails.

The Haizhu and Huangpu lines are the first two of a planned 11 routes in Guangzhou, totalling 167km (104 miles), projected to open by the end of 2025 under the city’s current five-year plan.

On 31 December 2020, Beijing also opened its second tramline of the modern era with the 11.9km (7.4-mile) Yizhuang T1 line.

Running from Dinghalyuan to Quzhuang, T1 is in the city’s south-eastern suburbs and feeds the Yizhuang metro line (Songjiazhuang – Yizhuang railway station) at Rongchangdongjie. Operated effectively as a southern extension of metro line 5, it employs vehicles supplied by Beijing Subway Rolling Stock Equipment Company, better known for building trains for the city’s metro. A short 1.3km (0.8-mile) western extension from Quzhuang to Laoguan is currently under construction.

The capital’s first second-generation tramway, the 8.8km (5.5-mile) Xijiao line in the Fragrant Hills suburbs, opened to passengers on 30 December 2017, although design work began in 2010. This acts as a feeder to metro line 10 at Bagou, providing a link to Xiangshan Park and the Summer Palace, a national monument and tourist destination in the west.

The Xijiao line is worked by 31 Sirio trams built under licence from AnsaldoBreda by CRRC Dalian. Plans to use the Ansaldo TramWave surface contact system were abandoned in favour of conventional overhead following difficulties in creating a reliable traction supply, and spiralling costs.

The Xiajiao line also holds the dubious honour of being China’s most expensive tramline at almost CNY600m/km (EUR78.5m/km). The average out-turn cost is CNY150-200m/km (EUR20-26m/km).

Further suburban lines are planned, serving the Shunyi and Fengtai districts in the north-east and south-west.

Five new tramways in 2021… so far

Delingha is capital of the Haixi Mongol and Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, located 2982m above sea level. Heavy rail services on the Qinghi – Tibet railway use trains equipped with oxygen supply.

Trial operation on a 14.4km (nine-mile) two-line tramway began in May 2020, using 25 two-section low-floor trams built by CRRC Qingdao Sifang built under a licence agreement signed with Škoda Transportation in 2013. They are an evolution of the 15T type used in Europe, with the addition of energy storage using supercapacitors and lithium-titanate batteries adapted for high-altitude power delivery. Charging is undertaken via rigid catenary at stops and in the depot.

A city of 481 500 in Yunnan province, Wenshan introduced revenue service on its new 14km (8.7-mile) tramway on 15 May.

Ground-breaking on the CNY2.3bn (EUR297m) project (known as line 4) took place in January 2018, with works allocated under a PPP with Yunnan Construction & Investment Group that also covers operations.

The first phase features ten stops, a depot and control centre; the main corridor runs for 11.7km (7.3 miles) from the Tourist Service Centre to Puzhehei railway station with eight stops. The mainly-segregated line has some elevated sections and features five road crossings. There is an additional 2.3km (1.4-mile) two-stop branch to Jiaolian Square.

Service is provided by 15 CRRC Zhuzhou ‘Xiaohong’ 100% low-floor trams. Each four-section car has a top speed of 70km/h (43.5mph) and capacity for 364 passengers, 72 seated. The fleet uses a hybrid system of onboard supercapacitors and lithium-titanate batteries which are charged en route via stop-mounted charging points.

French-based public transport operator Keolis now operates two tramways in China, following the 25 June 2021 opening of the first tramway in Jiaxing, Zhejiang province.

Home to around 4.7m people, Jiaxing is an important economic hub with a large textile and leather goods sector and an expanding base for high-tech industry. Its first 10.6km (6.6-mile) tramline links Fanggong Road/Binhe Road in the city centre with South Railway station, an intermediate stop on the Shanghai – Hangzhou high-speed line.

Like many tramway projects in China this is regarded as a demonstration line, although a 98km (61-mile) network of seven routes is planned for completion by 2035. A 3.2km (two-mile) extension of the first line, to Anle Road, is under construction, where it will cross the short line T2, bringing the system to 15.6km (9.7 miles). T2 will eventually reach 13.7km (8.5 miles) running from North Bus Station to Science and Technology City.

A fleet of 20 five-section 100% low-floor CRRC Changchun 34.8m trams provide the service, with supercapacitor energy storage recharged at each of the line’s 11 stops.

Foshan is a city of 7.2m in central Guangdong province. It has had a metro since November 2010, now totalling 34.4km (21.4 miles) and operated by Guangzhou Metro Corporation. Four more lines, which will add almost 160km (100 miles), have been approved and will join the network by 2026.

As of August 2021, the city now has two tramlines. The first, Gaoming Tram 1, runs north-south on a 6.6km (4.1-mile) route with ten stops. A ceremonial ‘launch’ was held in November 2019, with passengers carried a month later. The Gaoming line is a testbed for hydrogen fuel cell technology for manufacturer CRRC Qingdao Sifang and its partner Ballard. The three-section low-floor trams use a design licensed in part from Škoda and feature capacity for 270 passengers, 60 seated.

The first 9.8km (six miles) of the Nanhai line opened in August 2021, between Leigang and Sanshan Xincheng North; this will be extended to 14.3km (8.9 miles) to reach Linyuedong and a connection to metro line 2 later in 2021. The 15-stop route includes 7.6km (4.7 miles) of elevated running and 3.7km (2.3 miles and four stops) underground.

Using similar stock to the Gaoming line, eight cars provide a ten-minute service, each having a 230kW high-power fuel cell stack and a large-capacity lithium-titanate battery.

Work on a third 9.9km (6.1-mile) line, the Nanhai Lishui line, began in December 2020.

A Yizhuang T1 tram waits for a signal near Rongchang East Street stop in June 2021. Tony Lu / CC BY-SA 4.0

A very different application of modern LRT technology is employed in Kunming: an airport peoplemover. This 1.9km (1.2-mile) route opened on 26 July, transporting passengers between three stops at Kunming Changshui International Airport (S1 Satellite Hall – T1 Terminal Station – Louqian) in just over seven minutes, using three 100% low-floor trams with supercapacitor energy storage. The ‘Green Dolphin’ line uses metro-style ATO (Automatic Train Operation) systems and claims to be the world’s first autonomous LRT service.

Travelling at speeds of up to 70km/h (43.5mph), each tram can carry up to 500 people, equivalent to seven shuttle buses. Recharging takes 30 seconds at terminii.

Much more to come

With 22 cities now featuring a light rail service, more and more cities are getting their own proposals ready for approval under future Five-Year Plans. Cities with tramlines either under construction or planned include Chongli, Dujiangyan, Lijiang, Baoshan, Guiyang, Turpan, Xi’an, Zhangye Lhasa, Haikou, Quanzhou, Zhengzhou, Kunshan, Baotou, Korla, Anshun, Hangzhou, Changzhou, Taizhou, Huangshan.

Added to the expansion of existing systems, another 500km (300 miles) of tramway lines could be introduced in the next decade in Chinese cities, offering lessons for us all.

Article appeared originally in TAUT 1006 (October 2021)



While the majority of Chinese tramways have been successful, there have also been a few mis-steps along the way. As reported in TAUT 1005, the future for the tramway in Zhuhai (a prefecture-level city on the central coast of Guangdong province, population 2.44m) looks decidedly uncertain. Although ceremonially ‘launched’ in September 2013, it would be another four years before a stable revenue service could be established. This came in June 2017. An early pioneer of wire-free technologies, the city’s 8.9km (6.6-mile) tramline has been plagued with years of poor technical performance, low ridership and escalating maintenance costs. Since its full inauguration, the operator has repeatedly sought solutions to issues with the ground-based power supply technology that have led to frequent service failures. Technical issues have also affected the line’s fleet of 12 CRRC (formerly CNR) Dalian low-floor Sirio trams (built under license from AnsaldoBreda) with eight currently available for service. Averaging fewer than 3400 passengers/day, less than 5% of the original forecast, the operational costs far outweigh the revenues – by a factor of 350 to 1. An independent assessment commissioned by the Zhuhai Municipal Transportation Bureau in early 2021 stated that a prerequisite for retaining the line would be replacement of the ground-based current supply with a traditional overhead electrification system. This project has been costed at CNY94.2m (EUR12.3m). While plans once existed for future lines, it looks increasingly likely that the Municipal Government may abandon the tramway and divert its funding into electric buses instead.