China’s Successful HSR System
Just five years ago China was just beginning to develop its high speed rail network. It wasn’t much further along than the United States. But with a huge amount of economic stimulus funding, China has networked much of their country, one that is roughly the size of the continental USA.
And as the New York Times reports today, the results are a big success:
Practically every train is sold out, although they leave for cities all over the country every several minutes. Long lines snake back from ticket windows under the 50-foot ceiling of white, gently undulating steel that floats cloudlike over the departure hall. An ambitious construction program will soon nearly double the size of the 16-platform station.
Just five years after China’s high-speed rail system opened, it is carrying nearly twice as many passengers each month as the country’s domestic airline industry. With traffic growing 28 percent a year for the last several years, China’s high-speed rail network will handle more passengers by early next year than the 54 million people a month who board domestic flights in the United States.
China’s example proves that when it comes to high speed rail, if you build it, they will ride. The story quotes businesses executives as well as wage workers who have found the trains to be incredibly useful. It helps that Chinese wages have risen, whereas American wages are stagnant owing to the wealthy elite’s desire to hoard all profits for themselves. As has been seen in Spain and the Northeast Corridor, travelers tend to prefer the bullet trains to planes when given the choice.
China built this system when it did, in the speed that it did, as an act of economic stimulus. That approach is paying off:
China’s high-speed rail system has emerged as an unexpected success story. Economists and transportation experts cite it as one reason for China’s continued economic growth when other emerging economies are faltering. But it has not been without costs — high debt, many people relocated and a deadly accident. The corruption trials this summer of two former senior rail ministry officials have cast an unfavorable light on the bidding process for the rail lines.
The high-speed rail lines have, without a doubt, transformed China, often in unexpected ways.
For example, Chinese workers are now more productive. A paper for the World Bank by three consultants this year found that Chinese cities connected to the high-speed rail network, as more than 100 are already, are likely to experience broad growth in worker productivity. The productivity gains occur when companies find themselves within a couple of hours’ train ride of tens of millions of potential customers, employees and rivals.
“What we see very clearly is a change in the way a lot of companies are doing business,” said Gerald Ollivier, a World Bank senior transport specialist in Beijing.
Productivity gains to the economy appear to be of the same order as the combined economic gains from the usual arguments given for high-speed trains, including time savings for travelers, reduced noise, less air pollution and fuel savings, the World Bank consultants calculated.
I don’t agree that this was “unexpected” – it’s exactly what many of us predicted as early as 2008 based on the experiences of other countries with high speed trains. There are significant, demonstrated productivity gains that come from connecting regions together with bullet trains. The article is full of examples of how this works, like this one:
Li Qingfu, the sales manager at the Changsha Don Lea Ramie Textile Technology Company, an exporter of women’s dresses and blouses, said he used to travel twice a year to Guangzhou, the commercial hub of southeastern China….
He now goes almost every month on the punctual bullet trains, which slice straight through the forested mountains and narrow valleys of southern Hunan province and northern Guangdong province in a little over two hours, traversing long tunnels and elevated concrete viaducts in rapid succession.
“More frequent access to my client base has allowed me to more quickly pick up on fashion changes in color and style. My orders have increased by 50 percent,” he said.
Substitute Changsha and Guangzhou for Los Angeles and Fresno (not an exact comparison, but you see where I’m going) and you can get a pretty clear idea of how HSR can help expand California’s economy. The Central Valley is a perfect place for new businesses to set up shop and to locate manufacturing in a place with plenty of affordable land already in the urban area. Yet the designers and managers are all on the coast. The Central Valley’s unemployment is sky-high. Connecting it to the coasts with bullet trains will be a huge benefit to the entire state.
The article notes that airlines have begun scaling back short-haul flights on routes served by high speed rail. That’s not new either, it’s exactly what we have seen around the world with HSR, and it’s a big reason why American airlines like JetBlue are strong supporters of high speed rail. They can make more money on the medium and long haul routes and are quite happy to let trains carry the short haul travelers.
Transit oriented development has also boomed around Chinese HSR stations, helping to fuel greater urban density. That too is something we’ve seen around the world and something that will be a great benefit to California cities, especially those in the Central Valley.
The article does point out that China has financed this HSR expansion with debt. But that’s a good thing. As we learned during the Great Depression, governments ought to be going deeply into debt in order to build out major infrastructure systems that can put people to work now while also serving as the basis of lasting prosperity. The United States has a self-defeating fear of government debt at exactly the time when more of it is needed.
China’s success with HSR should be emulated here in the United States. China is eating our breakfast, lunch, and dinner by building out an HSR network that is giving them a big boost over us in the long term. HSR not only creates new economic activity, it does so by saving money on energy costs. True, right now China gets a lot of its electricity from burning fossil fuels. But China does not intend to continue that for much longer, and is intensely interested in developing renewable energy systems so they are no longer dependent on expensive fossil fuel imports.
Unfortunately, the Times chose to address the issue of comparing China to the USA by quoting a UC Berkeley professor who is simply wrong to dismiss the idea that China should be a model:
“Except for Boston to Washington, D.C., we don’t have the corridors” of high population density that China has, said C. William Ibbs, a professor of civil engineering at the University of California, Berkeley.
Ibbs is right that China has much greater population density than California. But so what? California compares favorably to Spain in population density where bullet trains are just as successful as they are in China. California’s raw population totals in the HSR destination cities compares well to those of France as well, which also has a successful HSR system. Ibbs is claiming here that without Chinese-levels of density, HSR won’t succeed. The reality is that you don’t actually need much density for HSR to succeed and the United States, California in particular, clearly has enough to meet the HSR need.
One other issue that is frequently raised with regard to Chinese HSR is safety. The 2011 Wenzhou crash caused a major political scandal in China and raised serious questions about China’s HSR safety record. The New York Times devoted a separate article to this question and concluded that Chinese HSR is very safe:
Government data shows that the system has carried about 1.8 billion passengers since the start of 2009. Rail experts inside and outside China say they are not aware of any fatal crashes other than the one near Wenzhou. They also note that obsessive attention to the rail system by social media users means that it would be nearly impossible to cover up another fatal high-speed train crash — although there have been unconfirmed reports of pedestrians killed after sneaking past fences and on to the tracks.
Comparing the 40 deaths in the crash two years ago to the number of Chinese high-speed train trips completed without loss of life over the last several years suggests that the trains have been exceptionally safe overall, said Arnold I. Barnett, a mathematician at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who is one of the world’s best-known experts on aviation safety statistics.
“Chinese high-speed rail has so far established a mortality-risk level that equals or exceeds that of the world’s safest airlines,” Mr. Barnett wrote in an e-mail.
In other words, despite the very rare high-profile crashes like Wenzhou or this summer’s tragedy in Santiago de Compostela, high speed rail is an extremely safe way to travel, much safer than driving and safer even than flying, itself a safe method of getting around.
Together these two New York Times articles make a strong and clear case for accelerating the development of high speed rail in the United States. We cannot afford to fall behind China or any other country on this. Yet that’s exactly what is happening, thanks to people who believe that driving everywhere is the best transportation system invented by humanity and to those who believe that government spending and borrowing is evil. Those ideas are recklessly wrong, and we embrace them at great cost to our prosperity now and in the future.