In China’s High-Speed Successes, a Glimpse of American Difficulties

» With political figures failing to account for the long-term interests of their constituents, the U.S. continues down its confused path.

The opening of the new $32.5 billion Beijing-Shanghai high-speed rail link this week marked a significant milestone in the world effort to improve intercity rail systems. Though the development of fast train networks in China has not been without its failings, the connection of the nation’s two largest metropolitan regions — the tenth and nineteenth-largest in the world — is a human achievement of almost unparalleled proportions, especially since it was completed a year earlier than originally planned and just three years after construction began. It comes as the Chinese government celebrates its 90th anniversary.

With ninety daily trains traveling the 819-mile link at average speeds of up to 165 mph, the corridor will likely soon become the most-used high-speed intercity rail connection in the world. Because of safety concerns, the quickest journey between travel endpoints will take 4h48, more than the four hours originally proposed. But that will still be more than twice as fast as the existing trip by train and about as quick as the air trip when including check-in times and the journey to and from the airport. So from the perspective of intercity mobility, the rail link will be a huge improvement. The fact that trains stop in the major cities of Tianjin, Jinan, Xuzhou, Bengu, and Nanjing (among many others) — and that they free up capacity on the older line for freight use — only improves matters.

China is in a stage of its economic progress that makes great works such as this high-speed system more feasible than similar works in more developed countries like the United States. While the comparison between the Beijing-Shanghai link and the New York-Chicago connection is hard not to make — each would serve resident populations of about sixty million along corridors of roughly 1,000 miles — their respective political contexts differentiate them to such a degree that makes them almost impossible to compare.

Some Americans may dismiss the Chinese achievement, suggesting that the system’s construction by a single-party government with authoritarian tendencies makes it in itself suspect. One of the great things about the American political system is that it attempts to respond to the demands of the citizenry. The defeat of several Democratic governors in last fall’s elections reflected on some degree of disenchantment with the Democratic Party in general, but in three cases — Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin — the GOP’s open opposition to intercity rail projects there clearly played a role in convincing voters, who evidently agreed with the anti-rail sentiment, to throw out Democrats. In some ways, it is a reflection on a successful democracy that the rail projects in those places were cancelled, whatever their technical merit.

Yet the completion of China’s longest high-speed line should raise questions in the minds of Americans about whether our particular political and economic system is most fit to compete in a rapidly changing global economy.

The United States, celebrating its own 235th anniversary, has in many ways yet to escape the doldrums of the recession. But unlike China, whose government moved forward quickly to invest in its economy in response to investor insecurity, the U.S. has been characterized by a pile-up of political figures grounding their schizophrenic decision-making in paranoia over the role of government and a general distaste for definitive action on anything.

This week’s endorsement of the Central Florida SunRail commuter train project by Governor Rick Scott (R) was a reflection of American democracy at its worse. Having complained of budget deficits and scorned off federal intercity rail funds for a fast train to link Tampa and Orlando that would have likely cost the state no money, Mr. Scott has given his go-ahead to a project whose primary beneficiary will be CSX, the freight rail operator, and whose costs to the state will run up the tab into the hundreds of millions of dollars — with few public benefits. The SunRail service will operate every 30 minutes at peak hours and every two hours during the middle of the day, at least at the beginning of operations. Future operations improvements lack funding.

The commuter line’s first phase was approved by the Federal Transit Administration in 2009 for New Starts funding because of years of influential lobbying by similarly debt-obsessed Congressman John Mica (R) despite considerable objections from the U.S. government over its cost effectiveness; it was arguably the most expensive per rider of any project approved that year. The project will serve an estimated 4,300 riders a day at a final cost of $1.2 billion, $432 million of which will be handed directly over to CSX for the purchase of its line.* This amounts to a state subsidy for a private corporation, in direct contrast to the high-speed rail line, which was attracting offers of hundreds of millions of dollars from private groups that saw operating profits on the horizon.

This in a country where even the head of the supposedly progressive party claims, just like the Republican opposition, that the best way to soothe the country’s economic woes is to reduce government spending. And meanwhile, expensive projects with only a minor impact on mobility or accessibility somehow make their way forward. Ideological consistency appears not to be an American strongpoint.

Americans cannot raise their hands in dispair, brushing off the successes of Chinese dictatorship as simply the consequence of a lack of democracy. The U.S. political system’s failures to adapt to contemporary needs are no fault of democratic practice.

Indeed, China was not alone in moving forward with fast train systems last week. The French railroads authority approved the first phase of the Sud Europe Atlantique high-speed line, which will run 190 miles from Tours to Bordeaux and decrease travel times from Paris to Bordeaux from three hours to 2h05 in 2017. The program is the largest public-private partnership ever signed in Europe and will cost a total of $11.3 billion, half of which will be covered by a group of private firms expected to pay off their initial capital expenses with fifty years of operating profits. In case the point was not clear, France is a perfectly democratic place; the project underwent ten years of studies before being approved for funding, including a significant round of public forums on the scheme. The program was approved by a succession of political leaders who were elected to their posts.

Thus it is not democracy in itself that makes it difficult to envision projects similar to the Beijing-Shanghai line being completed in the U.S., but rather our particular brand of democracy. Its short political term lengths, reliance on two center to center-right political parties, overwhelming involvement of lobbying groups in the legislative process, strong state governance, and weak local and state revenue production capabilities too often result in indecision, half-hearted solutions, and reckless governing logic that focuses on short-term wins more than long-term considerations. In many ways, it’s the opposite of the Chinese governance system, where most decisions are factored into a multi-decade conception for the country’s future by state master planners who seem to know what they’re doing. Do we?

What is the appropriate response to this problem? We can speculate away, but what is obvious is that American political support for specific investments in projects such as commuter trains or high-speed rail lines is haphazard at best and dangerously wasteful at worst. This is no way to run a country.

* The funds will allow SunRail to use the corridor during the day, but CSX will still be able to run freight trains on the corridor at night, potentially making maintenance of the line more difficult. This includes a completely out of proportion $200 million insurance policy that the state is paying to CSX to use the tracks. In addition, the funds provide tens millions of dollars to CSX to upgrade an adjacent line.

Image above: Shanghai Hongqiao station, from Flickr user triplefivechina (cc)

93 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Michael Schaeffer

    We definitely have to fix up our country. No more waiting, no more talk, no more delaying. Only action!

    • Nathanael

      Need to get sane government to do that. Instead, at the federal level, we have “cut taxes for trust fund babies, cut all spending on useful things, buy more bombs” Republicans and “We’ll do half of what the Republicans want” Democrats….

  • …a human achievement of almost unparalleled proportions…

    Almost is the key word. The shinkansen running between Tokyo (world’s largest metro areas!) and Osaka (the 9th) has been running for decades. And I have a hard time believing that the Beijing-Shanghai link will attract more riders than the Tokyo-Osaka line, which is set to be maglevified with (supposedly) zero public funds within the next few decades. Suck on that, China!

    • mourgeka

      The Tokaido-Shinkansen has less than half the length of Beijing-Shanghai (515 km vs. 1,318 km) and was built in five years vs. China’s three years. The speed and volume of construction does put this most expensive rail project in the world in the Pyramid’s category. Due to its length it won’t be the busiest line (that title will still belong to the Tokaido) but the second busiest.

      Proceeding with maglev construction at cost in excess of $110 billion doesn’t strike me as especially impressive. If the maglev test track and its extensions (to be incorporated into the line, will make up a little less than 15% of total length) didn’t exist, they wouldn’t build it – sunk costs at it best. Ironically, German maglev would probably be cheaper but try telling them to scrap their own.

      A lot could be achieved if switching speeds on the Tokaido line could be raised above the current 70 km/h, a major drain on capacity. Which would be cheaper than spending 9+ trillion yen.

      • Ocean Railroader

        A lot of the metal railed trains are already getting up to the speeds of the maglev lines. On skycraper city they have a topic on the maglve line being built and they are right now extending it from it’s existing test track 15Km to 42Km which will make it at least 130% longer then before. They are at the same time drilling several major tunnels for this test track extension and they have plans of starting work on a 20Km tunnel.

        As for this I really think it’s Japan trying to say they have the state of the art in tech. In that right now they have a good sized section of track to operate for the public right now. But in terms of building this into a global system I don’t think it will happen in the next 50 to 80 years at least in that Japan is taking great deals of time to build this project unlike China which built this great rail line in only three to five years.

        If maglev was the future China would have extended their existing 20Km line into the 150Km line like they originally wanted to do but didn’t which is odd consdering China as pently of money resources unlike Japan.

      • Anandakos

        Maglev is a HUGE energy hog. There’s a reason that those magnets are “superconducting”.

        • Maglev actually consumes less energy than conventional rail at equal speed, because there’s less friction and air resistance. The reason maglev lines are so energy-intensive is that they run 50% faster than conventional HSR, which overwhelms the efficiency gains of hovering above the guideway and of not needing a pantograph.

          • Ocean Railroader

            I would wounder though about future repair costs on these new maglev lines in that they have very complex guideways with a lot more evevated sections which in 40 to 50 years would need a lot of speical repairs which could add a lot of hidden costs. While there are a lot of old steel railroad lines that are still using 90% to 80% of their first bridges and tunnels along with only having to have the steel rails and wooden ties replaced every 30 years.

            • Maglev is also lower-maintenance than conventional rail – depending on the system, the train comes into direct contract with the tracks either never or only at low speeds.

              If the tooth fairy paid for infrastructure, vendor lock were not a problem, and compatibility with legacy infrastructure were not an issue, then maglev would be strictly better than conventional rail, in every way. The reason conventional rail is better is that infrastructure costs money, and vendor lock and backward compatibility are real issues.

            • Andre L.

              Any potential complex maintenance is outweighed by the fact maglev has no surface-to-surface attrition, which vastly reduce wear and tear on both the infrastructure and vehicles.

      • quashlo

        The Chūō Shinkansen isn’t really being built for additional capacity. Although yes, the Tōkaidō Shinkansen is pretty close to maxed out, there is still some scheduling flexibility for additional trains that they gained when they built Shinagawa Station.

        The maglev is being built as a redundancy for the Tōkaidō Shinkansen, which is nearing 50 years in age and in need of major upgrades. Once complete, the maglev will allow them to perform these upgrades while retaining service on the critical Tōkyō‒Nagoya‒Ōsaka corridor (Japan’s three largest metropolitan areas).

    • Max Wyss

      The maglev line will not replace the current line.

      I have not seen operation concepts so far, but there are issues which may seriously limit the line’s capacity (switches are very complicated, or only usable at very los speeds, for example). So, the exonomic success is not assured by far.

      • Andre L.

        Maglev lines, like monorails, don’t have “switches” in their normal sense. You have movable sectors that are fit, mechanically, to create a continuum, diverting or not the track. These sectors are up to 200m long if you want purely high-speed movements.

        • Max Wyss

          I am fully aware on how such switches are implemented. However, compared to even the most evolved “conventional” switches, they are complicated and thus more subject to reliability issues. Also, they are more expensive. As a consequence of this, there will be a minimum of switches in the line, which will make the it even more vulnerable to problems.

          • The Tokaido Shinkansen has few switches, too. Because it doesn’t branch, JNR never invested in high-speed switches, and the only such switch in Japan is at the junction of the Joetsu and Hokuriku Shinkansen; the Shinkansen doesn’t even have bidirectional signaling.

      • quashlo

        Maglev design operating plan is 10 tph.
        For the most part, capacity won’t be an issue.

  • Is it really true that “in three cases — Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin — the GOP’s open opposition to intercity rail projects there clearly played a role in convincing voters”? Walker ran on an explicitly anti-rail platform, but Scott didn’t have an articulate position on Florida HSR until after he won.

    • ThomasD

      And the 49mph 3C Ohio Conventional Rail project was an ill-conceived whipping boy that made it easy for Kasich to condemn.

      • Note that should be specified as ill-conceived politically ~ there was no technical problem in the position of bidding for something in the range of half a billion dollars to build a $1b corridor with building the 110mph track first and then adding the 110mph level crossings and signaling in stages after the first service started running, but it is definitely an approach that exposed it to attacks more focused on propaganda vulnerability than technical merits.

  • Danny

    I don’t know much about the SunRail project, but this phrase has me scratching my head:

    “The project will serve an estimated 4,300 riders a day at a final cost of $1.2 billion, $432 million of which will be handed directly over to CSX for the purchase of its line. This amounts to a state subsidy for a private corporation, in direct contrast to the high-speed rail line, which was attracting offers of hundreds of millions of dollars from private groups that saw operating profits on the horizon.”

    Ummm…how is the purchase of rights of way considered in any way a subsidy? When it is purchased, CSX no longer benefits from it! That is like saying when I buy a house from a previous owner that I am giving them a direct subsidy. It is complete bullshit to call it a subsidy. It is an exchange, and a fair priced one at that, considering the historic prices of rights of way through major metropolitan areas.

    And furthermore, rights of way needed to be purchased for the high speed rail line as well. Regardless of the fact that the high speed rail line had corporations that wanted to invest in the line, the government still had to contribute money, and they still had to purchase private property.

    So why is the purchase of CSX property a subsidy and the purchase of non-CSX property not a subsidy?

    • The questions raised are about what CSX is getting. As far as I can tell from reading recent news stories, the state is paying $432 million to both move and upgrade the CSX line. The package includes not just purchasing the tracks, but also building a new intermodal freight terminal in Winter Haven, which CSX said it would’ve built on its own but only after the economy improved, and upgrading tracks “elsewhere in Florida” (I can’t tell from the articles where).

    • Yes, excuse me for not describing the CSX situation more concretely. As described in the New York Times article (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/28/us/politics/28mica.html?pagewanted=all), CSX is not only continuing to be able to use the tracks at night (threatening line maintenance if the SunRail project ever attracts enough passengers to make day maintenance difficult), but it is also getting millions to upgrade a parallel line, primarily allowing CSX to get a faster route compared to the competition.

      If we want to spend public funds to upgrade freight corridors, fine, but at least do it in a way that allows those improvements to be used by all carriers. And don’t package the improvement funds into the cost of a commuter rail line.

      • Danny

        Sorry, should have read all the links more carefully. The language confused me but I see your point.

      • Well, as a Floridian, I’m just as disappointed as you are about the bad governance surrounding the SunRail deal. That being said, here’s how a future, more sane Florida can make metaphorical lemonade from it:

        With forceful negotiation, the parallel freight upgrades now can be a down-payment on outright purchase of the tracks SunRail runs on. I’d wager on it attracting higher ridership than Tri-Rail once it has the same level of service, since it runs through city and town centres and will allow for more transit-oriented development.

      • Don

        I STILL don’t see that CSX gained anything, here. Now, they own both routes. After, they will only own one route, although they will keep some trackage rights at night – that presumably, would be about as useful as the NEC trackage rights that NS has.

        The route they are being paid to upgrade is “…a faster route compared to the competition…” Huh? The competition for traffic to, from and through Orlando on CSX is highway. The only other RR in FL south of Jacksonville is the FEC and they hug the coast. Somebody should actually look at a map before they say such silly things.

    • Anandakos

      Very little of sacred “private property” was needed for the HSR project. It was to be built in the median of I-4 and the 528 tollway.

      Now, an argument could certainly be and was made that doing so meant that the two intermediate station at Lakeland was inconvenient, but the rail line as planned was to be nearly all on already-publicly owned ROW.

      • Tampa Bay resident here. Don’t even get me started on the Lakeland station. Putting it at the Kathleen Road/I-4 interchange would allow for a direct light rail/BRT connection to the city centre and Amtrak station, which is slated to become a regional transit centre.

        Not ideal, sure, but it would have been a lot better than the car-oriented Polk Parkway/County Line site designated by Polk County, which Lakeland is part of.

    • Ocean Railroader

      I really think this is CSX bossing Florida around and that if Florida is going to buy the line from them then they should be aload to call the shots. If I was a load to carry out this project as a rail planner I would outright tell CSX that if where buying this rail line where playing by our rules as the new owners of it.

  • Danny

    BTW Yonah, for the direct benefit of your future reputation, you might want to include an immunizing strategy in your writing when you decide to publicly worship China’s delusional “long-term” planning. It is not any more sustainable than the US housing boom.

  • Michael Schaeffer

    Is it possible to run lightweight DMU’s for commuter rail, using a time separated schedule, like NJ Transit’s River Line?

  • PeakVT

    What is the appropriate response to this problem?

    You’re essentially asking, “how can we stop an empire from collapsing from within?” At this point, the best answer seems to be, “you can’t.”

  • Tim E

    I have to skratch my head on Gov Scott thinking on this one also. The Feds literally handed him the dough to start the first true section of HSR in the nation, its runs through existing ROW already owned by the DOT, and Private investors mouths were watering on the idea of running the thing into past Ft Lauderdale (think cruise ship traffic) and right into Miami’s new intermodal center just outside the busiest airport for the ever richer countries in South America. Absolutely dumbfounded when CSX simply did a good job on negiotiating and Scott falls over for Orlando. What I’m I missing in al this?? Orlando, Disney world and its tourist economy would benefited immensely from HSR running to Tampa and Miama.

    • The New York Times article Yonah linked to explains it best. The short version is that Florida is effectively governed similarly to the Soviet Union, and the Central Florida GOP powers-that-be forced his hand on this.

    • Nathanael

      Governor Scott is a looter; look at his history as the CEO of a company convicted of massive fraud against the government.

      The HSR line apparently did not offer opportunities for fraud, self-dealing, and looting. SunRail, perhaps, did offer such opportuntities.

      We need look no further. Governor Scott is first and foremost a crook.

      I might look for kickbacks from CSX to Governor Scott, though.

  • Tim E

    OK, not really missing anything. It was purely a idealogic, politically move that protected campaign donors in highway/materials group that saw a real threat to the status quo in FL. The sunrail for all intents is a expensive first step with limited ridership. I think you could have posting by itself just asking is the price worth it or are their better ways to make transit happen.

    The real losers will once again be voters when most of the congestion expansion will be financed via tollways with voters having a whole less to say in what infrastructure going cost them going forward.

    • So you’re saying that HSR got scrapped because it would’ve gotten good ridership, but sunrail get’s a go-ahead because it’s ridership is crappy – thus no danger to the establishment.

      • Tim E

        You and Alon pretty much summed up my argument. A little more nuanced, more ridership yes, but not some much the factor as the connectivity that a Tampa/Orlando/Ft Lauderdale/Miami HSR would have provided a legitimate third transportation network competing for some of the tax, finance and tolls (fares/revenue if you look at it from a tollway investor) dollars now going almost exclusively into highway and tollways.

  • John W

    Think you made a typo here:
    reliance on two center to center-right political parties

    Shouldn’t that be “two right to far-right political parties” (at least from the perspective of pretty much any other country in the world).

    • Danny

      I have always found this argument interesting, because it only works when you consider a few very narrow policies…but then it is extrapolated across everything.

      For example, tax policy. We generally have low taxes…that pushes us to the right, right? But wait…We don’t have a VAT, we depend heavily on property taxes for local government, and our tax rates are lower and kick in at higher income levels than nearly every other country in the world. Does the fact that our tax policies are far more progressive in nature give us any credit? Or are we still a damn-near-fascist government because we don’t tax poor people enough to raise our government spending to 50% of GDP, like they do in nearly every western European country?

      • Andre L.

        For the final costumer, the effect of a sales tax is comparable to that of a VAT, if the rates are the same. As a general rule, VAT in Europe is around 18-20% for most goods, whilst sales tax in US are far lower, and also don’t fall on many services like electricity, tolls, insurance policy issue etc.

        Property taxes, on the contrary, are higher in US than in most of Europe.

        • Danny

          Yes…the sales tax is a regressive tax. Ours definitely is lower on average compared to European and other developed nations.

          Property taxes are higher here, but property taxes are very progressive, at least until you get to the top 1% or so where assets trend into far more diverse areas than just real estate.

          Of course we have the problem of thinking that corporate taxes are progressive when they are in fact the worst of them all…depressing wages at the bottom while providing tax incentives for all sorts of corporate-jet/limo/yacht/high-rise-condo/etc tax evading malfeasance at the top.

          Our taxation system has huge problems, namely the ability of the superstrata of wealth to evade taxes, whether through offshore accounts or low capital gains taxes or corporate subsidies or whatever. But regardless of that fact, we still put far less of a burden on the poor and middle class than nearly any other developed country.

          • Interesting how the payroll income taxes which are responsible eliminating any net progressive effect of income taxes in the US dropped entirely out of that round up. We have a payroll income tax rate of 15.3% below the OASDI threshold of around $100K and 2.9% above that level.

      • Nathanael

        Our taxes are not at all progressive compared Europe.

        Our high, high property taxes end up being very regressive for anyone living outside a big city. Our sales taxes are admittedly lower — but our FEES are much higher, and fees are even *more* regressive than sales taxes.

        Meanwhile, our federal income taxes max out at 15% for people who get their money from stock dividends (first 30,000 tax free if you don’t work at all), but (including payroll taxes) *start* at 15% and go up to over 50% for people who actually work for a living. And don’t get me started on regressive state income taxes…

        No, the US gets no credit for its slightly lower sales taxes, because practically every other tax the US has is more regressive. Especially the fees.

  • 202_cyclist

    But how is China at fighting decades-long Middle Eastern wars?

  • MY MIND IS BLOWN!
    Good thing I live in Canada which does not have a 2 party system. Unfortunately we here in Toronto are under threat of having a ll three levels of government Conservative. Our mayor is pretty stupid too…

  • Alan Kandel

    Thirty-two point five billion dollars to build (and operate) 819 miles of Chinese high-speed rail line. Anyone else here see a parallel to the planned 800-mile (at full build-out) California high-speed rail line between San Francisco, Sacramento and Los Angeles, San Diego at an estimated cost of $43 billion? I don’t know what the profile of the Shanghai-to-Beijing line looks like, but it seems to me the two lines should be quite comparable. Based on this, one would think the Golden State fast train line should be quite doable at $43 billion provided, of course, sound engineering and construction practices are maintained and waste is kept to an absolute minimum.

    • First, the Yuan is undervalued. In PPP, the cost of the Beijing-Shanghai PDL (¥220 billion) is $55 billion, in 2010 dollars. That’s $40 million per km, which is high by European standards, due to the use of very long elevated structures.

      Second, California’s budget is $43 billion for phase 1 alone – but that’s in year of expenditure dollars, rather than constant dollars. In 2010 dollars, it’s about $38 billion. That’s $55 million per km. It’s higher than in China because of the need for tunnels under complex, seismic mountain passes, especially between Sylmar and Bakersfield.

  • AlexB

    We live in a democracy. Major public works have to: 1) Capture the imagination of the populace; 2) Include a lifetime or so of environmental review; 3) Create as few disruptions to existing habits of life as possible; 4) Be financed by new taxes or from defunded programs. In China, prerequisites 1-3 don’t exist, and 4 is not a major challenge, especially in a country with more Treasury bonds than anyone else. We used to have #4 taken care of in the US, but only for roads, and not since the gas tax seemingly cannot be raised.

    If you have #3 taken care of, the rest can be easy. Perhaps it’s the novelty of high speed trains, or the fact that every single thing in the US has been designed around the automobile or the plane, but Americans simply can’t envision high speed rail here, except maybe in the northeast or California. We go to Europe and marvel at their systems, and then never think to build them in our home states. Americans don’t understand how high speed trains would really be a big benefit, and they simply don’t have the gee whiz response that would be needed to get it off the drawing board.

    • Ocean Railroader

      China has vast reserves of funds that they are using on this project with their Two trillion dollar trade surplus. They are not only building a high speed rail system in their county but they are also building them across Aisa. I really though they are happy about their projects taking the imagination of the people though.

    • ThomasD

      You are incorrect to suggest that only the Northeast and California want HSR or Emerging HSR. You need to add Pacific Northwest, DC-Charlotte, Milwaukee-Chicago-St. Louis, Chicago-Kalamazoo, and Los Angeles-Las Vegas to the list.

  • Nicholas O'Kane

    Thanks for all the informative blog posts, Yonah

    Can the map at http://www.thetransportpolitic.com/2009/01/12/high-speed-rail-in-china/ be updated, and a few small fixes (for instances the Dali-Kumming line is not high speed and using the map at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:China_high-speed_rail_network.png to add more proposed routes and get the existing ones on your map right.

    Its really amazing what China is doing regarding HSR

  • Peter

    Ummm, spam, anyone?

  • Shannon

    Okay I understand the article but try living in China…….it is a land that does not have freedom. The smog is terrible. The lack of tolerance still rings true with the imprisonment of opposing political figures. Different classes of people have to wear different colors in the street. You guys cry about America but you don’t look at the big picture

    • Different classes of people have to wear different colors in the street.

      Um, what the hell are you talking about?

      The smog is terrible.

      Not everywhere – e.g. Shanghai’s air is fine by American standards, thanks to traffic restraint policies (license plates are auctioned). Beijing recently saw the light and embarked on such a program too, to stop being one big traffic jam in a giant black cloud.

      • Andre L.

        In an incidental passage, I’d like to asses the following statement, repeated on this site (and many others) in similar ways:

        But that will still be more than twice as fast as the existing trip by train and about as quick as the air trip when including check-in times and the journey to and from the airport.

        While journey times to airport must be factored in, so should be accounted for travel time to/from HSR station. Particularly in big cities, even if they are “dense” and “transit oriented”, the time travel between the local HSR hub and the final origin/destination is not negligible at all, as just a tiny fraction of all travelers will live within a short (<5 min) walking/transit/taxi distance from the HSR terminals.

        • Generally, the HSR station is closer to where most people live and work than the airport. Generally: in Shanghai, the train station used for the new HSR service is located at the same place as the domestic airport.

          However, the shorter security line and simpler check-in is a massive advantage for HSR over air.

  • Luk

    Not such an important mistake but the Chinese government is not celebrating its 90th anniversary in this coming October 10th, which is the date when the Republic of China (the Nationalists) overthrew the Imperial Qing in 1911, the current government, the People’s Republic of China (the Communists), just celebrated its 60th anniversary in October 1st 2009, the date it overthrew the Nationalist government in 1949.

  • David Keddie

    How does the high-speed rail line represent a mobility improvement given, “But that will still be more than twice as fast as the existing trip by train and about as quick as the air trip when including check-in times and the journey to and from the airport.”

    If it is only about as fast as planes while including journey and check-in times only with air travel, which surely is an imperfect comparison, how does the train provide any mobility improvement? All of its passengers could get to their destinations just as fast by plane without having made the vast expense for the HSR. Sorry to always be a contrarian.

    • more capacity, cheaper.

    • ThomasD

      Provided the HSR line is updated to 186 mph, it is faster city center to center for under 450 miles, more dependable and less expensive than flying (if not subsidizing other slower rail lines.)

    • Danny

      It doesn’t represent much of a mobility improvement for a large portion of travelers (although price competition will certainly benefit them regardless of whether they choose train or plane).

      The point you are missing is that if point A has an airport and point E has an airport, then HSR is a major mobility improvement for people going from: a to b, a to c, a to d, b to c, b to d, c to d, e to b, e to c, e to d… and so on.

      You see, going from Boston to NYC, people have plenty of options. But if you want to get to New Haven from Philadelphia, what are your options? Is there anything even remotely capable of giving you 50 trips per day to choose from?

      HSR is a major improvement if it is designed right and operated in a manner that capitalizes on those strengths. If they don’t do that (and a lot of HSR proposals don’t) then HSR becomes nothing more than an expensive play toy for the rich.

  • Sharon

    FL grossly overpaid CSX for their tracks and must then upgrade to double tracks AND waived 100% liability to CSX, any accident that occurs on those tracks, the FL taxpayer must pay and previous settlements were huge. FL is paying CSX $631 million not $432, have zero liability, we are paying for a new station for them,a private company and we were forced to pay for 61 miles of track and only using half. In other words, CSX won the lottery with the push for decades by John Mica and his crony capitalists. Mica had to break his own rules and waive their cost effectiveness requirements to allow the Boondoggle to move forward. We will continue fighting it in FL and it will be an issue for 2012 .

  • TomA

    Fewer delays also, and particularly fewer very long delays.

  • Matt

    I really don’t get why Republicans continue to support underwhelming commuter rail projects which will end up with low ridership and subsidized operation, yet they are opposed to capital spending on high speed rail which will run at an operational profit and serve hundreds of times more riders.

    • Al S.

      Because the GOP has internalized their talking point that HSR=Socialist-Communist-Fascist-Statist-Marxism (an idea only bolstered by its success in China and “socialist” Europe). Their base is in the exurbs and rural America, areas that would see fewer direct benefits of HSR, so they can freely trash it, while the 75+% percent of the population who would benefit from it is underrepresented at the national level, and has to do without so the Republicans can have one more wedge issue.

      • Exurbs would normally tend to receive benefit from HSR, since there will be only one major airport in most metropolitan areas while there will be two or three HSR stations.

        So its important to prevent exurban voters from experiencing the benefit ~ as long as they vote on the basis of their stereotypes rather than on the basis of experience, they are fairly safe anti-rail voters.

  • greg

    “Because of safety concerns, the quickest journey between travel endpoints will take 4h48, more than the four hours originally proposed.”

    This is a very common misconception in the press about the reduction in maximum speed in China’s HSR. A perception not helped by the confusing and conflicting statements from China’s Ministry of Railways.

    The real reason is more political than safety:

    1) The sacking of the former Minister of Railways has raised doubts in the minds of public and higher leadership about the operations of the MOR, which had been operated as a monopolistic government bureaucracy lacking transparency. There have been a lot of reports that the Chinese leadership were unhappy about the slow pace of MOR’s reform towards to a more market-oriented entity.

    2) The high ticket prices in some of the HSR lines have aroused public resentments in some sectors of the society during a time of increasing inflation and wealth disparity – the Chinese public views the railways more as a public utility, rather than commercial enterprises like airlines. Airlines ticket prices are adjusted according to market condition freely, whereas railways ticket prices are subject government control strictly

    3) The economic climate and investment climate are changing. Whereas railway in general and HSR in particular have been favored investment projects amidst the economic downturn due to financial crisis in the last few years, the current focus for the government is reign in the economic overheating and the concerns about debts and credit expansion.

    Therefore, the reduction in HSR max speed is the direct response from the new Minister of Railways to alleviate the concerns and pressures both from the leadership and the public, although it’s a decision not without controversies.

    The lowering of the top speed from 350 km/h to 300 km/h allows the MOR to run trains of two different speed classes: 250 km/h and 300 km/h, more efficiently than a 350 km/h and 250 km/h combination. It also allows the MOR to reduce the ticket price for the top speed trains to respond to the public complain. The 250 km/h class trains run on both the existing conventional lines and the new HSR lines.

    This is obviously a setback from the MOR’s original ambitious goal of running strictly high-speed trains on the new HSR lines and reducing the passenger traffic on the existing lines to divert more capacity to freight. The reality is that China still has a large portion of population who can not afford true HSR and demand significant conventional speed train services – the MOR can not simply ignore them. On top of that, China’s HSR network is still not completed yet, therefore mixed use of existing lines and the new HSR is unavoidable.

    Finally, the reduction in top speed is not across the board. The Beijing-Tianjin line and Shanghai-Hangzhou line are still running at top-speed of 350 km/h under the new train schedule stating July 1, and the MOR officials have not ruled out the possibility of reverting back to 350 km/h in the near future. Considering that China’s HSR has been running top-speed 350 km/h on several lines for several years now, the safety concern is overblown.

    • hammy

      @greg: excellent analysis you gave here, very detailed and informative. “the reduction in HSR max speed is the direct response from the new Minister of Railways to alleviate the concerns and pressures both from the leadership and the public, although it’s a decision not without controversies.” this is regarded as a common sense by most (if not all) Chinese railway enthusiasts, but it is rarely known/said by foreign observers. If you could post a few more blogs like this, that would be really helpful to those who are interested in Chinese railways.

      Yonah Freemark’s comments might be inspirational on many issues in the states, but he seems to have little knowledge on Chinese geographic/demographic features(for instance, the claim that Beijing-Shanghai corridor has sixty million residents is a vast underestimate of the target population of this HSR. In fact the 200 mile section from Shanghai to Nanjing alone has more than 60 million residents). The lack of necessary knowledge is quite natural to me though, as Chinese railway development is not of real interest on this website.

      • Depends on how you count. As this article notes, the population of the city metro areas directly along the route totals less than 60 million.

        • The article understates the populations of some places. For examplse, Suzhou’s population is 6.3 million, of which the urban area has 2.4 million, whereas the Daily Kos article claims 1.1; and Nanjing’s urban area has 4.5 million, whereas the article claims 3.

        • hammy

          I used to live in the Yangtze River Delta and I know how misleading some sourceless articles could be.

          There are six major cities (each has at least one HSR station) along the Shanghai-Nanjing section (300km, or 187.5 mile) on Beijing-Shanghai HSR. Here are the official 2010 census data for them:
          Shanghai (Hongqiao Station), 23.01 million;
          Suzhou (Kunshan South Station and Suzhou North Station), 10.46 million;
          Wuxi (Wuxi East Station), 6.37 million;
          Changzhou (Changzhou North Station), 4.59 million;
          Zhenjiang (Danyang North Station and Zhenjiang South Station), 3.11 million;
          Nanjing (Nanjing South Station), 8.00 million.

          So a total of 55.54 million long-term residents for the 300km section alone. Considering the number 55.54 million only accounts for long-term residents, the total population of that area is easily over 60 million. The huge demand is the primary reason why this area has two parallel HSRs, the Shanghai-Nanjing ICL and the Shanghai-Nanjing section on Beijing-Shanghai HSR.

          I am not going to list census data for all cities along the HSR, but to show you how significantly one city could be under-reported in the quoted article, let’s take a look at Tianjin, which is a big port city with 12.94 million long-term residents. In the article, the population of Tianjin is listed as 3.8 million.

    • Kevin C

      “Considering that China’s HSR has been running top-speed 350 km/h on several lines for several years now, the safety concern is overblown.”

      This thread on China HSR needs to be re-examined based on having their first fatal accident. http://www.economist.com/blogs/banyan/2011/07/chinas-high-speed-train-crash.

      We had expected China to be like Japan (45 years, 7 billion passengers, zero derail/crash fatalities, 1 fatality from train doors) or like France (30 years, no fatal accidents). It seems to me that the low costs and speed of construction need to set against what is now, for an HSR system, an awful record on a per year, or per passenger km basis

  • Mike O

    > A lot could be achieved if switching speeds on the Tokaido line could be raised above the current 70 km/h, a major drain on capacity

    Is there a technical solution to this?
    ? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swingnose_crossing ?

  • Andrew In Ezo

    “A lot could be achieved if switching speeds on the Tokaido line could be raised above the current 70 km/h, a major drain on capacity”

    Where did you find this claim? Portions of the Tokaido Line are already at capacity with 3-5 minute headways, restricted by braking distance, not the turnout speed.

  • Tim E

    Their is another prespective on why you would see Governor’s support of Sunrail vs HSR. It has nothing to do with passengers but putting CSX in position to provide competitive container rail service to ports in the south vs Florida East Coast Railroad’s more direct speedway up the eastern seaboard.

    The reality is that the state under its new governor is bridging the fudning gap for Port of Miami’s deepening to 50′ depth in order to accomondate the next round of container ships that will be able to go through the widen Panama Canal. Realistically, Port of Miami and Everglades (Port in Ft. Lauderdale) will be the cheapest to deepen and quickest vs other Southeast Ports in Jacksonville, Tampa, Savannah, Charleston & Wilmington NC. The disadvantage for Flordia is that Miami is the farthest distance to the landlock prize of Atlanta. In order to capitalize on deeper ports it will require as much investment in the states freight rail infrastructure as its ports.

    In other words, I would also argue that Sunrail was just as much as giving CXS capital as anything else. Capital to make CSX competitive with Norfolk Southern/Florida East Coast railroad when it comes to moving containers out of the state after they come off a ship. In essence, Port of Miami and Everglades and thus its users are not captive to one shipper which would erode any cost advantage in being able to take bigger shippers.

  • Jordan Hare

    Thus it is not democracy in itself that makes it difficult to envision projects similar to the Beijing-Shanghai line being completed in the U.S., but rather our particular brand of democracy. Its short political term lengths, reliance on two center to center-right political parties, overwhelming involvement of lobbying groups in the legislative process, strong state governance, and weak local and state revenue production capabilities too often result in indecision, half-hearted solutions, and reckless governing logic that focuses on short-term wins more than long-term considerations. In many ways, it’s the opposite of the Chinese governance system, where most decisions are factored into a multi-decade conception for the country’s future by state master planners who seem to know what they’re doing. Do we?

    Looking at the great age of American railroads/transit, most of this build-out was directed & financed by the private sector. The development of the interstate system faced much of the same congressional hostility that now greets the specter of high-speed rail as a “big-government project”.

    As much as the idea of a unified, strong planning authority for national rail matters may sound, I’m not aware of much precedent for it. The paranoid style of much of the US body politic and the limited deference given to federal power outside of strict constitutional bounds will make large initiatives almost impossible to achieve if driven in a centrally planned way.

    Rather, the most (perhaps the only) effective way to enact change in the US has been through the chaos/opportunity of the private sector. Americans innovate in the private sector in spite of the ineffective, inefficient nature of their democracy. At present this isn’t an ideological stance as much as a statement of fact.

    The key to solving the transportation crisis in this country is the creation of a competitive, vibrant market for transportation solutions. It’s hard to imagine what this would look like. But perhaps a good analogy would be the Post Office. Back in the late 1960s the USPS was seen as corrupt, inefficient, and dangerously expensive. The government then (Nixon administration) could have chosen to devote political capital to fixing the institution itself, with all of the turf wars that would have required. But instead it deregulated package delivery, creating such giants as FedEx and UPS … and letting the USPS continue to languish.

    • Nathanael

      You can’t create a viable market without competent regulation…. especially *anti-monopoly* regulation.

      Teddy Roosevelt knew this when he busted the trusts.

      Our current Republicans, however, are in favor of private monopolies. Which are the a good way to get no innovation whatsoever. No competition, no oversight by voters, just “We like the way we do things and we like collecting our monopoly rents”.

      So even your proposal isn’t feasible in the current environment. We absolutely require competent government in order to get anything useful done on transportation.

      • Jordan Hare

        Agreed that the current opposition to any form of regulation will make it challenging to set up open & fair markets for transportation services. However, this too shall pass.

        At present, discussions on building public works in the US are tarred with the frowned-upon notion of “shared sacrifice”. Over the next 10 years of likely stagnant growth, the resentment of having to share will change into the resentment of envy. In that climate “shared sacrifice” will become politically preferable.

    • This isn’t really true. The railroads got a bunch of state and federal grants, and had (and still have) the power of eminent domain. The Interstate system exists 100% because of federal spending; Congressional hostility was not about the idea of roads, which was in the national consensus, but about specific routings, with each politician wanting pork directed to his own constituents.

      • Jordan Hare

        Alon – have you read Mass Motorization & Mass Transit by David Jones? In it, he details the heavy lift required to get the interstate system built. In short, Republicans in Congress were strongly opposed to building the system on the basis of its costs. It was eventually pushed through thanks to Eisenhower who pressed the “national interest” argument better than anyone else.

        http://www.amazon.com/Mass-Motorization-Transit-American-Analysis/dp/0253351529

        Also covered is the initial expectation that the Interstate system would not threaten the primacy of inner-city central business districts; the explosion of suburban sprawl / suburban office parks was essentially unexpected (hence the later buildout of radial freeways).

        • No, I haven’t. Have you read 20th Century Sprawl by Owen Gutfreund? In it, he details how the interests behind freeway constructing were for the most part political rather than commercial: booster groups, rural populists, the AAA, highway builders, and later the auto industry lobby. Those spurned any attempt to build highways on a commercial basis, spreading FUD about the viability of tollways. (You can find the thesis that became the book on Gutfreund’s website; at least at one point, at least for people with academic IP addresses, it was available for free.)

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