Many people, myself included, have looked at China’s ever-growing high speed rail network with envious eyes. Yet there are reports surfacing that corners may have been cut during construction, leading to questions about safety and durability.
I’ve watched in amazement as China, which had no high speed rail infrastructure before 2000, has become the world’s HSR leader in just ten years. It is reminiscent of America’s massive interstate program during the 1960’s, and at a glance it seems like a huge success. Ridership is on the rise and China has situated itself as a world leader in HSR at a time when many countries, the U.S. included, are taking a second look at such options. It’s a story I follow more closely then most, because me and my generation have the most to gain, or lose, from high speed rail in America.
In the back of my head though, I have always wondered at what cost did this plan take shape. The Chinese government basically owns all the land within its borders, so there are no worries, from a legal perspective, about right-of-way. That certainly has helped speed along construction, though I don’t see anybody asking how many people were physically displaced by this high speed dream.
Then there is the actual construction. I know Obama’s dream is expensive, but I don’t want construction companies to skip out on the building materials when thousands of tons of bullet train are screaming over the tracks at 200 mph. Yet a whistleblower within the Chinese transportation ministry has said that the concrete bases upon which the train tracks sit are so cheaply made that within a few years the current speeds of 217 mph will be unsafe and that speeds will be lowered by 10-15%. The champion of China’s high speed rail network, Liu Zhijun, was removed on charges of corruption earlier this month from his post in the rail ministry. Combined with the whistleblower’s accusations of poor construction habits, it calls into question what other problems plague the world’s largest network of high speed trains.
Say what you want about the American interstate system; 50 years later and it holds up under heavier traffic conditions then ever before. That might not be the case for China’s HSR network. And that crappy construction didn’t come cheap, as China has borrowed over $300 billion so far, with another $200 billion allocated for the next ten years. America isn’t the only country with debt problems, and I’m not sure if that includes all the money China is losing on operating costs.
Then there are the costs of the actual train tickets. I have no experience with China’s high speed rail, only what I have read on the Internet. And from what I can gather, a select few lines have met projections, but many are running at half capacity or less. The costs of the train tickets are beyond the reach for many of China’s middle and lower classes. Some 230 million migrant workers still prefer cheaper bus tickets over the glitzy rail system, even in a country with 10 day traffic jams. It is the wealthy who enjoy these bullet trains, not the “average Zhang.” I know I wouldn’t be too happy about a bullet train, whose tickets I can’t afford, blasting through my land on shoddily constructed concrete pads. And all it could take is one bad accident caused by crappy construction to shut down the whole damn network. Who knows how far this problems have spread?
That doesn’t mean I don’t support high speed rail in America. I really, really do. But I’d rather have it done right, than done rushed. Obama’s plan had money going to every corner of the country, but luckily for him, Republican governors like Rick Scott of Florida sent the money back to Washington. So instead, Obama needs to focus on two or three areas (hint hint Northeast) and ensure that those lines can be built up to snuff and turn an operating profit without too much government support. We need to learn from China’s mistakes, which so far amount to displacing the population, shoddy construction, and too-high ticket costs. If I were the President, I’d be pointing at China and saying “They’ve got the right idea; now lets do it better.”
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.