Railways, roads, and inland waterways all play an important role in China's transportation system, which has undergone major growth since the 1940s. China's rail network forms the backbone of the transportation system. Chinese railways increased in length from 21,989 km (13,663 mi) in 1949 to 67,524 km (41,959 mi) in 2002, of which 13,362 km (8,303 mi) were electrified. In the rush to expand rail facilities during the "Great Leap Forward," the Chinese laid rails totaling 3,500 km (2,175 mi) in 1958; some 4,600 km (2,900 mi) were added in 1959. The construction pace slowed somewhat in the 1960s, but many major projects were completed in the 1970s, including double-tracking of major lines in the east; the electrification of lines in the west, including the 671 km (417 mi) Baoji-Chengdu link; and the addition of several new trunk lines and spurs, many providing service to the country's more remote areas. While the total rail network is more than twice what it was in 1949, the movement of freight is more than 25 times that of 1949. Increased freight volumes have been achieved by loading freight cars up to 20% over their rated capacity and by containerization. Shortages of freight and tank cars continue to delay deliveries of coal and other industrial raw materials to their destinations. In 1991, China invested $8 billion for infrastructure improvements, including the upgrade of 309 km (192 mi) of double-track railway and the electrification of 849 km (528 mi) of track.
Road transportation has become increasingly important. Motor roads grew from about 400,000 km (249,000 mi) in 1958 to 550,000 km (342,000 mi) in 1964 and to 1.4 million km (869,960 mi) by 2002. About 271,300 km (168,586 mi) were paved, including 16,000 km (9,942 mi) of expressways. Major roads completed in the 1970s included the 2,413 km (1,499 mi) Sichuan-Tibet Highway, the 2,100 km (1,305 mi) Qinghai-Tibet Highway, and the 1,455 km (904 mi) Xinjiang-Tibet Highway. Between 1981 and 1985, 50,000 km (31,000 mi) of highways and more than 15,000 bridges were built. By 2000, an estimated 3,955,272 passenger automobiles used the highway system, up from 50,000 in 1949. In addition, there were some 11,894,272 commercial vehicles operating in the same year. Bicycles are the chief mode of transport in large cities; in Beijing, there are an estimated eight million bicycles, accounting for 83.5% of the city's road traffic.
Navigable inland waterways reached a peak of 161,900 km (100,600 mi) in 1962 and decreased to 110,000 km (68,354 mi) in 2001. About 25% of the waterways are navigable by modern vessels; wooden junks are used on the remainder. The principal inland waterway is the Yangtze River; much work was done in the early 1980s to dredge and deepen the river, to improve navigational markers and channels, and to eliminate the treacherous rapids of the Three Gorges section east of Yibin. Steamboats can now travel inland throughout the year from Shanghai, at the river's mouth, upstream as far as Yibin; 10,000-ton oceangoing vessels can travel inland as far as Wuhan in the high-water season and Nanjing in the low-water season. Major ports on the river include Chongqing, the principal transportation hub for the southwest; Wuhan, its freight dominated by shipments of coal, iron, and steel; Wuhu, a rice-exporting center; Yuxikou, across the river from Wuhu and the chief outlet for the region's coal fields; Nanjing; and Shanghai. The Pearl River is navigable via a tributary as far as Nanning. The ancient Grand Canal, rendered impassable by deposits of silt for more than 100 years, has been dredged and rebuilt; it is navigable for about 1,100 km (680 mi) in season and 400 km (250 mi) year-round.
China's merchant fleet expanded from 402,000 GRT in 1960 to over 10,278,000 GRT in 1986, and to 16,915,3047 GRT in 2002. China's 1,764 merchant ships of 1,000 GRT or over can accommodate most of the country's foreign trade; the balance is divided among ships leased from Hong Kong owners and from other foreign sources. The principal ports are Tianjin, the port for Beijing, which consists of the three harbors of Neigang, Tanggu, and Xingang; Shanghai, with docks along the Huangpu River channel; Lüda, the chief outlet for the northeast and the Daqing oil field; and Huangpu, the port for Guangzhou, on the right bank of the Pearl River. Other important ports include Qinhuangdao; Qingdao; Ningbo, the port for Hangzhou; Fuzhou; Xiamen; and Zhanjiang.
The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) operates all domestic and international air services. Operations have grown significantly with the purchase, since the 1970s, of jet aircraft from the United States, United Kingdom, and other Western sources. In 2001 there were 489 airports, of which 324 had paved runways. Principal airports include Capital at Beijing, Shuangliu at Chengdu, Hongqiao at Shanghai, Baiyun at Guangzhou, Wujiaba at Kunming, and Gaoqi at Xiamen. From Beijing there are scheduled daily flights to Shanghai, Guangzhou, Kunming, Chengdu, Shenyang, Changchun, Changsha, Wuhan, Zengzhou, and Harbin. The total scheduled international and domestic service performed in 2001 included 4,232 million freight ton-km (2,630 million freight ton-mi), as well as 72,660,704 passengers carried.