Department of Geography and Resource Management (GRM), The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Research Projects

Which cities gain more transport benefit from the intercity railway network in the Pearl River Delta?

Prof. XU Jiang

Which cities can benefit more from new transportation infrastructure? Common sense tells us that cities with more bargaining power are able to bring more benefits to their territories. However, this research reveals a rather different scenario in the Pearl River Delta – cities with greater bargaining power have – challenging traditional wisdom – rather bargained for lower accessibility to intercity railway stations. Why?

Through the lens of politics of scale, Professor Xu has led her team to find out the answer. They start from investigating how China’s railway regime has experienced a fundamental shift from a monopolized, national-scaled system to an open, multi-scalar one, exemplified by struggles across multiple tiers of government around railway line alignment and station location. Through comparing the decision-making processes of the siting of each of the 78 stations on the Pearl River Delta’s six backbone intercity railroads, they have demonstrated that the decision-making of railway project has, amidst the pressure of a largely administratively and economically decentralized state, evolved from a centralized pursuit at the national level to a negotiation process involving state actors from multiple scales. Specifically, three main sets of observations are made.

First, the rescaling of the Chinese government in the post-reform era has resulted in diversified interests among state agents at different scales in railway planning. In particular, locations of new railway stations have become subject to intensive interscalar bargaining. As an illustration, in the planning of the Pear River Delta Intercity Railway System (PRD-ICRS), both the Ministry of Railway (MOR) and the Guangdong government tended to locate the ICR stations in the city centre to capture passenger flow and maximize their profit. While the MOR developed this preference out of their worry for investment recovery, the provincial government carried an additional concern for the ICRS to serve as effective links between populations in different cities in the PRD to promote regional integration. Meanwhile, given their different levels of economic achievements and development priorities (see also the third point below), cities demonstrated different locational preferences for ICR stations in their territories. Some cities liked stations in the suburb while others were fond of stations in the city centre.

Second, between different scales of governments, the balance of power in railway planning has titled in the favour of the scale which commands crucial resources for railway development. On one hand, the MOR’s grip on the railway regime was weakened by its lack of capital to fund its ambitious plan for expanding China’s state railways. As it started forming joint ventures with provincial governments to finance railway construction, it invited challenges to its railway plans – after all, every investor wants to have a say about the development of what it invested in. On the other hand, municipal governments have gained momentum in influencing railway planning as the de facto owner of land resources, without which railways cannot be expanded, while also manipulating their better knowledge of local circumstances to bargain for their interests and preferences to be prioritized over the higher-level state units. This is confirmed by the case of the PRD-ICRS, in which cities managed to secure the final say on how the majority of the stations are now located.

Third, among cities, their power to bargain against state agents at other scales varies with their administrative and economic status. In general, cities enjoy greater bargaining power if they are assigned with higher administrative ranks and govern more prosperous economies. In the Pearl River Delta, the Shenzhen and Guangzhou governments top the league of municipal bargaining power for meeting both criteria. It is worthwhile to note that, contrasting our common belief, the bargaining power of a city’s government is inversely correlated to its residents’ ease of access to ICR stations. Two economic concerns are pertinent. For one thing, cities in the Delta could not financially benefit from the operation of the PRD-ICRS, because it is entrusted to a MOR-affiliated unit. With greater economic strength, cities with higher bargaining power have turned to develop their own subway systems to capture the revenue generated by local traffic in the city centre, while struggling to deflect competing ICR lines to more remote locations. For another, as richer cities expand into their suburbs, their governments may seek to divert ICR lines to their new growth poles, resulting in a higher average travel time of a city’s residents to their nearest ICR stations.