In the United States, perhaps because of our geographical isolation from Europe and Asia, we have a tendency to ignore the successes of other nations, focusing instead on our own society as the be-all-end-all, even when we have been outmatched by our foreign peers. There is little doubt that the United States is frequently miserably slow at updating its infrastructure, but we do not bring up international competition in the interest of bashing those manifest failings; rather, the accomplishments of other countries demonstrate what we, too, can achieve as others have already.
It is with this in mind that we consider, once again, high-speed rail, a transport technology that we in America have been notoriously bad in implementing. For the most part, we have laid back as Japan, Italy, France, Germany, Spain, South Korea, and Taiwan have developed incredibly speedy train networks and redefined mobility in their respective nations. But nowhere has the pursuit of the progress made possible by faster railways been as enthusiastic as in China, whose vigorous construction effort is unmatched.
Indeed, China has embarked on the second largest public works program in history, following only the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System in size. China plans to spend more than $1 trillion on expanding its railway network from 78,000 km today to 110,000 km in 2012 and 120,000 km in 2020. The Interstate Highway System was originally authorized to be 66,000 km long, but has expanded past that goal to 75,000 km today. The two nations are of basically equivalent size, and this means that China, which already has a passenger rail network about the size of our highway system, will be practically doubling its mileage of intercity connections.
Perhaps the most audacious element of China’s rail investment is its goal to invest in 13,000 km of high-speed rail by 2020. The Chinese are investing in two major track types: very high-speed rail, for trains traveling at 350 kph (220 mph); and typical high-speed rail, for trains traveling at 200-250 kph (125-155 mph). The latter tracks would be shared with regional, commuter, and freight trains, while the former would be reserved for high-speed trainsets alone.
As the map demonstrates, there are four main corridors being readied for very high-speed rail: Beijing-Hong Kong; Beijing-Shanghai; Xuzhou-Lanzhou; and Shanghai-Changsha. Since the vast majority of China’s population is located near its eastern coast, the majority of the country’s large cities would be well served by the network. The Beijing-Hong Kong line would be the largest single element of the system, at more than 1,000 miles long. As the “what we can learn” chart at the top of the page demonstrates, building a high-speed rail line in the United States as long as this would mean, for example, building a brand new line between Boston and Miami.
China is staking much of its economy in the construction of this rail system – the investment in intercity rail is the largest element in the country’s stimulus plan designed to counter the effects of the increasingly devastating recession. The country recognizes the benefit of increasing the speed of travel in the country. It also is acting to fulfill the demands for mobility of its growing middle class not by emphasizing super-highways but instead by building railways.
The 13,000 km of high-speed rail that China expects to have ready in eleven years is a big number: it’s the biggest fast train expansion in the world. An intelligent observer, however, might suggest that Spain, much smaller in land size, has an even more ambitious goal: 10,000 km planned by 2020. Indeed, Spain’s program is indeed quite impressive, and we hope to discuss it soon on the transport politic. If China were to embark on a project proportional in landmass, it would have to be 190,000 km long; in proportion to population, it would have to be 290,000 km. Spain’s high-speed rail program is enormous for its geographic and population size.
China’s specific program provides a better example for us to follow in the United States, however, because of the similar geographical size of the two countries, and because of the relative modesty of the current U.S. rail system, which will require decades to get back into shape. As a result, a program of China’s relative scale seems far more manageable and appropriate for comparison than one similar to Spain’s.
But the other reason China’s rail network design makes sense is that it will also take advantage of existing and slower-speed tracks, which represent the vast majority of the country’s total passenger rail mileage. Spain has a concrete disadvantage here because its regular trains operate on broad gauge tracks, while its high-speed trains, eventually to be incorporated into the European network, operate on standard gauge tracks; trains can’t easily operate on both. This means that trains can’t leave the high-speed network and use regular speed tracks, as is true in France, Italy, or Germany, for instance. This is a major nuisance.
China’s system, on the other hand, leaves open the use of the high-speed tracks for trains originating from or arriving at stations or cities without high-speed service. In other words, a train could, for example, leave Nanning in South China on slow tracks, travel to Guangzhou, and then continue to Beijing on high-speed tracks. This interoperability makes trips shorter for everyone, because a passenger traveling from Nanning to Beijing would not have to either transfer at Guangzhou to another train or take the entire trip on slow tracks, nor does the government have to invest in a high-speed line from Guangzhou to Nanning in order for passengers from Nanning to take advantage of the high-speed system!
Take a similar example from a future United States: a passenger wants to travel from Dayton, Ohio to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. But, in order to economize, only a track section from Chicago to Indianapolis, Indiana has been converted to high-speed rail operation. No matter! A passenger could take a train from Dayton to Milwaukee, via Indianapolis and Chicago, traveling at a slower speed for the first and last sections of the journey, and accelerating to top speeds between Indianapolis and Chicago. The passenger still would take advantage of a major time reduction over the existing rail system, even though both his arrival and destination city are not on the high-speed rail network.
China’s example, then, demonstrates how an efficient and useful high-speed rail system can be implemented in a very large country such as the United States:
- A large regional passenger rail network, operating at low-to-medium speeds (60-90 mph), must serve most of the country, reaching almost all destinations. This network could operate on cheaply upgraded freight track, which we in the United States are privileged to have in abundance.
- A select few main lines, operating at high speeds (150-220 mph), should serve the country’s largest cities only, and the cities well positioned in between. This network would have to be built at great expense and virtually from scratch.
- Trains must be able to operate on both types of track, so that trains can take advantage of high-speed segments, but can also serve smaller destinations not directly on high-speed lines.
China’s decision to invest in about 42,000 km in passenger rail lines, with only about a quarter of that going to high-speed lines, makes sense seen from this perspective. It allows cities throughout the nation to benefit directly from rail service, with all cities getting at least some rail and the larger cities getting fast rail.
It would be a mistake in the United States to only focus on high-speed rail, because ultimately, as budgets inevitably tighten, it would mean investment in fewer of the nation’s cities than would an equivalent sum invested in standard-speed railways. We simply cannot afford high-speed rail to every city in the country. But an integrated network, with a concentration on providing a few, high-demand high-speed routes and many standard-speed routes, would be a better bang for the buck. This Chinese example we would do well to emulate.
Map updated 16 December 2012.