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Another Misinformed Commentary on China’s High-Speed Rail

As we’ve pointed out here on China Urban Development, there is no lack of misinformation about China in the Western media. This has been the case for many years and will likely continue into the future. Predicting the collapse of China has even become a career for some pundits.

I started this site to offer a fresh perspective differing from most Western writers in that I actually live in China and work in an industry directly related to the country’s development. I have no illusions that China will transform itself to be more ‘democratic’ like the West, nor do I think that the West needs to copy China’s top-down development model to compete economically. What works in one culture will not necessarily work in another.

That being said, some of the negative commentary about China’s ambitions  is due at least in part to a poverty of ambition in the West. The latest example of this is an article from Washington Post editorial writer Charles Lane. Lane visited China for a few days recently and became an expert on the country’s high-speed rail system after taking a trip on the line from Beijing to Tianjin (a city he self-admittedly had never heard of).

Lane’s commentary reflects a common misunderstanding about China and its ambitions. He applies the same argument  to China as detractors of high-speed rail in the U.S. when he states:

“The fact is that China’s train wreck was eminently foreseeable. High-speed rail is a capital-intensive undertaking that requires huge borrowing upfront to finance tracks, locomotives and cars, followed by years in which ticket revenue covers debt service — if all goes well.”

Lane comes from the libertarian point of view  in that he insists every new piece of infrastructure must turn a quick profit, or else it is a waste of taxpayer money. To be sure, the position against high-speed rail holds some weight in the U.S. where the low-density nature of most of its urban landscape may not justify the high public expenditure of high-speed rail.

Yet China is building high-speed rail under a completely different set of circumstances. For one, China is still urbanizing substantially, creating a growing demand for high-speed intercity rail network. In addition, the country’s domestic air travel market continues to expand upon an already strained network.

Perhaps the most ridiculous part of Lane’s piece is the story he cherry-picked  of a 17-year old migrant girl he meets on a bus returning from Tianjin back to Beijing. Learning that she has never heard of the high-speed train and that she wouldn’t be able to afford a ticket, Lane concludes from this one example that high-speed rail is out of reach financially for the majority of Chinese people.

Reading that a 17-year old girl is not able to afford a high-speed train ticket in China is not surprising. What is surprising is that Lane ignores the growing reality of a Chinese middle-class that will gladly pay for the convenience and efficiency of high-speed rail. I would even be willing to bet that after a few years in the workforce, the 17-year old migrant girl would be able to afford a ticket if she so chooses to use the high-speed line as a means of transport in the future.

In the end, Lane says that China should envy the U.S. for not investing in high-speed rail. This is a laughable conclusion. Lane misses the bigger picture (more likely due to his ideological short-sightedness rather than his short visit to China) about the country’s ambitions.

China’s leaders don’t care if high-speed rail will ever be ‘profitable’. Were the aqueducts that supported cities in the Roman Empire turning a quick profit? How about the U.S Interstate Highway System? Gas and automobile taxes barely covers it these days as more highways turn into toll roads in America.

Great infrastructure projects throughout history are not built for quick profit but rather to strengthen economies and enhance the quality of life for people. In the long-run, China’s high-speed rail system will do just this as it unites the country’s urban areas, making mobility more convenient for its people.

The Washington Post: China’s Train Wreck

  • Brendan - I don’t disagree that Lane’s understanding of the issue is shallow at best, but the arguments made by Kam Wing Chan, a professor at the University of Washington, are quite valid and profound.’s-high-speed-trains-too-fast-too-furious/

    Love the blog though!ReplyCancel

  • Stephen Smith - I don’t know anything about the Roman aqueducts, but I would argue that America’s most innovative transit came out of not the government-dominated post-war era, but rather in the short period around the turn of the century when profit-driven transportation dominated. Though we’ve mostly destroyed all the evidence, the railroads, subways, elevated lines, and streetcar networks of 1880-1920 were unbelievably innovative, and arguably put us over the top in terms of being a superpower in a way that the Interstates did not.

    Furthermore, though while Japan obviously has its problems, its profit-driven mass transit system is undoubtedly the envy of the world, and far surpasses the American Interstate System in efficiency and technology.

    Anyway, maybe these lessons are not applicable to China, but I personally worry that its enormous leaps in urbanism and transportation are happening at the behest of a centralized government, and not a more market-driven process like America 100 years ago or Japan today.ReplyCancel

  • A Thomas - I, too, agree with the simplistic opinions on China that abound western media, but as someone else pointed out, there are real concerns about the HSR plans. While there is a growing middle class, one would hope that HSR could be priced to alleviate some of the traveling pressures that occur around the various holidays. As far as a previous comment about the private sector and public transit in the early US, it’s much more complex. Developers did provide public transit, but many of them provided it only to their development. It wasn’t a system and it was also highly corrupt. Whether government sponsored or private sector, both have issues.ReplyCancel

    • Adam Nathaniel Mayer - A Thomas, thanks for your comment. Going forward there will definitiely be an emphasis on keeping the ticket prices for China HSR lines affordable for middle-class Chinese travelers. Slowing down the anticipated speeds should help achieve this aim.

      I would also like to emphasize again that despite all the talk about ticket prices being unaffordable, every time I have been on a high-speed rail line in China the trains have been packed with nearly every seat full…so someone must be riding these trains.

      Regarding transit development in the U.S., I think the ideological debate of ‘public’ versus ‘private’ investment is irrelevant. I agree with you that both have issues but in the future it seems like if the U.S. wants to get anything built, government and the private sector or going to have to find a way to work together.ReplyCancel

  • Michael in SZ - Maybe they have been too quick with the construction. I ft hey had gone a little slower they would have been able to avoid the mess that resulted from the corruption. Good to see ticket prices going down.

    My main complaint is that they are either locating the stations outside the city centers or are designing HSR station as if it is an airport. By treating it as an airport they are not integrating it into the surrounding neighborhood–an island surrounded by highway ribbons in some cases, and farmland in other. Put the density where the infrastructure is, not away from the infrastructure. The potential advantage of HSR over the airplane is that you can locate the station in the city center–reducing the total trip time. That advantage is being wasted.ReplyCancel

    • Adam Nathaniel Mayer - Michael, I too have wondered why many of the new train stations for HSR are located inconveniently outside traditional city centers. I think it has to do mainly with the fact that this is where the most available land for development of this scale is located. As you mentioned, some of these stations are like airports- gigantic in size…it would not be practical to locate them in areas that would take up such prime real estate.

      With that being said, I think we may see new buildings popping up around these train stations, potentially creating new districts that will themselves be dense urban areas in 10-15 years down the line.ReplyCancel

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