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Expanding the rapid-transit network has become a key strategy to quickly transport large numbers of people between major population centres in China, but little is known about how the High Speed Rail (HSR) undertaking has altered the course of rural development and the spatial distribution of economic activity. This study estimates the effect of HSR network expansion on agricultural land, finding that while new HSR infrastructure may not have contributed directly to arable land depletion, HSR contributes directly to land confiscated for urban construction. Comparison between central cities and those elsewhere shows a substantial land grab in eastern and western cities directly attributable to HSR network expansion, which is conspicuously absent in central China. HSR also has measurable indirect effects on the rate of land conversion mediated by urbanisation, but only in western cities. The study concludes by considering the implications for food security and the dynamics of rural-urban disparities.