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Chinese Rail Debunks Autocentric Myth

September 26, 2013 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

China’s high speed passenger rail service is rapidly being developed and implemented. Almost the opposite is true in the United States.

China, with its odd combination of state-run and crony capitalism, authoritarian policymaking and a weak safety net in a nominally communist system, is making rapid transit advances. The US, by contrast, continues dragging its feet, despite widespread understanding of and support for high speed rail.

Its 5,900-mile high-speed rail system was developed with pop-up speed over just the past five years. Already, it is carrying nearly twice as many passengers as China's domestic airlines, and is soon to surpass the 54 million monthly U.S. domestic flight travelers, the New York Times reports.

This should put to rest once and for all autocentric claims that passenger rail is inherently obsolete transportation technology, long ago superseded by private motoring. This argument has always struck me as begging the question, based on the wobbly foundation of observing that there is lots of the latter around here and very little of the former, then concluding that thus is how it should or must be.

China's experience teaches us differently. In a sprawling nation with four times the U.S. population, private motoring is growing as well, albeit with terrible congestion in and around its teeming cities. But, along with road-building, China has invested significant resources in 21st century rail, which has paid off with 28 percent annual growth in ridership for the past several years.

Why are the Chinese flocking to 186-m.p.h. bullet trains? Because they're fast, smooth, comfortable and almost always on time -- all advantages over driving. They're also well connected to extensive high-quality urban subway systems and new rail-oriented housing and commercial districts.

Altogether, this has markedly changed the lives of both average folks and business executives. The Times tells of a shoe factory worker who now visits her daughter once a month instead of once a year, and a textile sales manager who has similarly multiplied his business travel. In each case, high-speed rail cut what was once a day-long, one-way trip to one of barely two hours.

"More frequent access to my client base has allowed me to more quickly pick up on fashion changes in color and style," the sales manager told the Times. "My orders have increased by 50 percent."

Added Gerald Ollivier, a World Bank transportation expert in Beijing: "What we see very clearly is a change in the way a lot of companies are doing business." Productivity gains from high-speed rail, a World Bank analysis concluded, appear to match the benefits more commonly attributed to fast passenger trains: savings in fuel and traveler time, less noise and pollution.

China's rail boom also has been goosed by fares that have been kept at less than half those on airlines, even as blue-collar wages have more than doubled, the Times reports. But this is little different from sticky U.S. fuel and vehicle user taxes for roads that keep losing buying power to legislative inaction. Meanwhile, China's airlines have halted or reduced service on routes of less than 470 miles that now are served by high-speed rail, but its domestic air traffic is still growing 10 percent a year.

To be sure, there's little prospect of importing the Chinese passenger rail model wholesale to the United States. For one thing, the densely populated areas of eastern coastal China, where most of the bullet trains operate, have few American counterparts outside the Boston-Washington Northeast Corridor. (Midwest spokes around the Chicago hub, including Minnesota, have some fast rail potential, however.)

Our nation also has huge sunk costs in a multimillion-mile system of streets, roads and bridges and is staring at huge deficits just to maintain it -- equal to or greater than China's nearly $500 billion in overall rail debt. In Minnesota alone, Transportation Commissioner Charles Zelle says mere upkeep of our current connections will cost more than $1 billion a year over the next two decades, leaving a $50 billion shortfall to make them economically competitive.

Another giant obstacle to passenger rail improvements here is the great social and political difficulty involved in routing new transportation infrastructure anywhere near anything. Much as China has done in laying high-speed rails in this century, we steamrolled over NIMBY objections to build roads throughout much of the last century, culminating with the destructive paths of so-called "interstate" highways through city neighborhoods.

Having been through that dark era, the American people won't stand for it anymore. Just look at the intractable standoff over freight trains and light rail in the Southwest Corridor route through the Minneapolis lakes district and St. Louis Park.

For better or worse -- probably the latter -- America made its autocentric bed in the 1900s and will be forced to lie in it for a long time. For passenger surface transportation in Minnesota, we have 140,000 miles of motorways and several hundred miles of transit and intercity rail, all but about 50 miles of it providing only slow, once-a-day Amtrak service to Chicago or points west. In essence, it's an unsustainable mobility monoculture.

But that doesn't mean we have to let our transportation past completely hijack the future, which some, particularly on the right, would resign us to. We may not see true high-speed rail in Minnesota in our lifetimes, but we ought to insist on extending and improving the speed, comfort, convenience and efficiency of passenger trains wherever possible.

China, Japan and much of Europe have shown us that rail travel, done right, is anything but obsolete. Far from that, it's an economic driver with strong appeal to travelers.

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