In five years, China built the world’s largest high-speed rail system. They now have 4,000 miles of line between all their crowded cities, and it still isn’t enough to put a dent in traffic…because most people can’t afford the tickets.
Megan McArdle writing for the Atlantic argues that politicians, geography, and democracy stand in the way of any meaningful high-speed rail system in the United States. It’s not as crazy as it sounds.
For one, the longest distance between the ten most populous cities in China isn’t much longer than a trip from Washington D.C. to Chicago. Our biggest cities are just a lot farther apart, crossing many more states and through a lot more backyards. McArdle argues that lawsuits, politicians, and the Not-In-My-Back-Yard gang would impede progress of a useful high-speed network. She’s probably right. My home state of Connecticut has been battling about a proposed high-speed bus between Hartford and New Britain for years despite the obvious need for an alternative to the constantly-congested I-84.
That’s where communism comes in. China doesn’t have to worry about the EPA, lawyers, property rights or any of that nonsense. They say the train goes here, and that’s where the train goes. Since high-speed trains need long, flat surfaces, it isn’t as though they go around a protected temple or private homestead. The train goes through it, and that is that. Those trains don’t come cheap either. A lot of regular working slobs just can’t afford the tickets, and instead stick to their cheap cars or tiny electric bikes. As a result, most of these trains barely hit half-capacity, and those trains need a lot of energy to get going. Not what one would call efficient if it can’t even full half the seats.
China has invested over $200 billion in high-speed rail alone over the next ten years, and as a result, ticket prices aren’t cheap. Meanwhile in the U.S., we’ve spread just $8 billion across 13 separate projects. The U.S. won’t have a network like China’s anytime soon without a huge financial investment and the repealing of personal property rights. That sucks. On the same token, our slow and deliberate path to high-speed rail may pay off better dividends as we can see how well China’s high-speed experiment goes. After all, if nobody can afford the ride, whats the damn point?
Chris DeMorro is a writer and gearhead who loves all things automotive, from hybrids to Hemis. You can follow his slow descent into madness at Sublime Burnout.