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China is exploring the possibility of extending its high-speed train network as far as Europe, potentially cutting rail travel time between London and Beijing to as little as two days.
Officials hope to see the project completed over the next ten years, enabling passengers to travel the roughly 8,000 kilometre journey at speeds of up to 320 kilometres per hour.
Two lines to Europe are reportedly being considered under the proposals, one passing through India, Pakistan, and the Middle East, while a second would head to Germany via Russia. Exact routes are currently undecided however. A third line would extend south from China to connect Vietnam, Thailand, Burma and Malaysia.
Wang Mengshu, a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering and a senior consultant on China's domestic high-speed railways said this month that work on the Southeast Asia line had already begun.
"We have also already carried out the prospecting and survey work for the European network, and central and eastern European countries are keen for us to start," Mr Wang said.
Chinese officials in Brussels were more cautious however. "I understand we want to improve our rail networks, potentially as far as Europe, but whether they will be high speed or not is yet to be determined," said one source.
Financing the project appears to be the main question, with China offering to bankroll the Burmese line in exchange for the country's rich reserves of lithium, a metal used in batteries.
"We will use government money and bank loans, but the railways may also raise financing from the private sector and also from the host countries," said Mr Wang, indicating the new lines would also be used to carry freight.
European experts say the current low maritime transport costs make it harder to justify an EU-China rail line on commercial grounds however. With global trade seemingly unstoppable in early 2007, ship builders were receiving record orders. But the subsequent financial crisis and global economic slump led to a 12 percent fall in world trade flows last year, according to WTO figures
"The availability of good infrastructure is pivotal to the growth of trade between nations," said Michael Clausecker, director-general of the Association of the European Rail Industry (UNIFE).
"However, whether this is the case for the EU and China is questionable as there is a huge amount of maritime capacity, with more expected in the coming years," he told EUobserver.
China is currently in the middle of a vast railway expansion project that aims to build nearly 30,500 kilometres of new railways in the next five years, connecting all its major cities with high-speed lines.
The world's fastest train, the Harmony Express, was unveiled in the country last year. Wholly Chinese-built, but using technology from Siemens (SI) and Kawasaki (KWHIY), the train is capable of a top speed approaching 400 km/h.
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