Shanghai media reported that throughout the seven-day National Day break, tens of thousands of builders continued to work flat-out dozens of meters beneath the city’s bustling streets to install giant concrete walls for new tunnels. They were in a bid to ratchet up the construction of a new metro line that will wriggle deep through the city’s alluvial soil bed to connect four outlying districts.

The 43.8-kilometer Line 18 will be the latest addition to Shanghai’s already sprawling cobweb of subway lines. Already, at a system length of 728km, the Shanghai Metro is second to none across all cities worldwide.

A series of projects will add no less than 160km to the web by the end of 2020. One fact to note is that Shanghai is a latecomer to the urban-rail club: The Metro did not have its first line until 1993.

Challenges have emerged. New lines must be dug as deep as a 15-story building to squeeze under the maze of existing tunnels, Zhou Xisheng, an engineer with the system’s operator Shanghai Metro Group, told Agence France-Presse.

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The system map of the Shanghai Metro, the world’s largest subway system with more than 700km of lines in service. Photo: Handout
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A commuter walks past the central concourse of Shanghai’s People’s Square station, an interchange hub serving three lines. Photo: Asia Times

Chinese cadres share the consensus that digging more rail lines in their cities provides the conduit for not only the flow of people but also for capital, expertise and opportunities. Boosting an extensive urban rail network is also a status symbol of being a genuine metropolis.

The Beijing Subway now has a total length of 608km, while the corresponding figure for Guangzhou, the largest city in southern China, which inaugurated its first line in 1997, is 400km, and the bourgeoning trading hub is on track to outstrip New York City in total length of urban rail in active service.

Once reserved for megalopolises, subways are also running in lower-tier cities and their conurbations far inland amid China’s sweeping urbanization.

Thirty-one cities throughout China, including almost all provincial capitals and affluent prefecture-level cities, have launched subway networks, with 133 lines and a combined length of 4,400km in operation as of the first half of 2017, and a dozen more embarking on ambitious construction initiatives.

Cities such as Chengdu, Wuhan and Zhengzhou have put forward plans to expand their systems beyond the 500km mark.

With the construction spree forging full speed ahead, it is reported that boring machines and tunneling shields, as well as train drivers, are in short supply.

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A passenger train passes a station on Line 1 in the eastern Chinese city of Ningbo. The city of 8 million residents has had two lines in service since 2014, with more than 170km under construction. Photo: Asia Times
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A passenger train approaches a station on Line 1 extension of Ningbo’s metro system. Photo: Asia Times
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A designated train car for female passengers in Guangzhou. Photo: Xinhua
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A passenger uses a QR code on her smartphone to go through a turnstile at a metro station in Shenzhen. Mobile apps including WeChat now offer cashless payments for train fares in major cities. Photo: Handout

Xinhua reported that China would fork out 2 trillion yuan (US$295 billion) on subway construction between 2016 and 2020, and despite the hefty outlay on top of mounting government debts, the Communist Party’s support should still able to see this litany of projects through.

Party cadres are asked to be more forward-thinking when planning new rail lines for many decades to come for urban agglomerations.

The metro networks of these cities are also riveted, through key transportation hubs, to the nation’s 25,000km network of express railways that is still expanding at full speed.

For instance, the 370,000-square-meter Guangzhou South Railway Station is a key node straddling seven high-speed rail lines and is also served by four metro lines to the city’s downtown area as well as neighboring cities in the Pearl River Delta.

An aerial view of the Guangzhou South Station, one of China's largest high-speed-railway stations. Photo: Xinhua
An aerial view of Guangzhou South Station, one of China’s largest high-speed-railway stations. Photo: Xinhua

This year, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), China’s top economic regulator, signaled a red light when even some counties were eager to jump on the metro bandwagon.

Thresholds for approval, inducing gross domestic product, fiscal income and size of population, were raised to cap the debts raised to finance new projects.

Cities like Lanzhou in Gansu province and Baotou in Inner Mongolia that had been eager to build their first metro lines were among the first to hit the regulatory roadblock.

Yet before long these cities saw light at the end of the tunnel after the NDRC made a U-turn within just a few months and tacitly scrapped the heightened prerequisites for launching new projects.

This is the result of policymakers resorting to the old path of infrastructure investment to drive growth when the Chinese economy shows signs of running out of steam.

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