When Shanghai unveiled its magnetic levitation train in March 2004 it was hailed as a symbol of the future by government officials and as a white elephant by many independent commentators.

The Shanghai “Maglev” is the world’s fastest commercial train, with a top operational speed of 431kph (268mph), but because its tracks extend only 30km from the airport to a depot on the outskirts of the city it actually travels at an average speed of just 246kph and is little more than a novelty for visiting tourists.

But as China embarks on an enormous expansion of its high-speed rail network that is expected to make it the most advanced in the world by 2020, the communist soothsayers appear far more prescient than the pessimists.

The period from 2003 to the end of 2008 is already referred to as the “golden age” of China’s railway construction by its railway ministry. But the ministry has ambitious plans that will eclipse even that period of frantic growth.

Those plans received a huge boost when the global economic crisis hit last year and Beijing responded by unveiling a Rmb4,000bn ($585bn, €397bn, £368bn) stimulus package, of which 38 per cent was to be spent on infrastructure, particularly railway infrastructure.

As a result of the stimulus, investment in rail transport in the first eight months of this year more than doubled from a year earlier to Rmb311bn and the rail ministry says it will spend another Rmb700bn in each of the next three years. That is intended to increase the total rail network from 80,000km at the end of last year to 110,000km by the end of 2012, allowing China to overtake India this year as the country with the second-largest network after the US.

Central to the railway expansion is the high-speed network, which the government plans to increase from about 6,000km now to more than 16,000km by the year 2020 – enough high-speed tracks to cover the distance between Beijing and London and back again.

If those plans all come to fruition, China will have more high-speed railway track than the rest of the world combined.

The planned trunk lines of the country’s high-speed network, handling trains travelling between 200kph and 350kph and dedicated exclusively to passengers, include four north-south lines and four east-west routes. These will extend the high-speed network from Harbin near the Russian border in Manchuria to Hong Kong in the south and from Shanghai in the east to Kunming in the south-west.

The plans are a boon for foreign suppliers such as General Electric, Siemens and Bombardier, which said last week its Chinese joint venture had won a Rmb27.4bn contract to build 80 high-speed trains for delivery before 2014.

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