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China, U.S., and High-Speed Train Development

by Yanzhong Huang
October 25, 2010

A labourer cleans the floor beside a China Railway High-speed (CRH) train preparing for the operation ceremony from Wuhan to Guangzhou in Wuhan, Hubei province, December 26, 2009. The Wuhan-Guangzhou high-speed railway, with the world's fastest train journey at a 350-km-per-hour designed speed, started operation Saturday, Xinhua News Agency reported. REUTERS/China DailyLast week, I took the train from New York City to Stamford, Connecticut to give a talk. The distance between Grand Central Station and Stamford is 33 miles, and it took me 44 minutes to get there. Not bad – at least I got there in time. Two weeks ago, I went to D.C. to participate in a conference, but the train was disabled at Baltimore station (how many times have we heard of a disabled Amtrak train?). I ended up spending six hours on the road. When I was waiting in the silent and dark train, I could not help but comparing the United States and China in high-speed train development. The distance between New York and Washington is about the same as that between Shanghai and Nanjing. The difference is the time it takes to complete the trip: one hour in China and three hours in the United States.

How time flies. How China flies! In Stamford, a former CBS News correspondent told me that the U.S. government had spent 15 years debating whether we should invest in high-speed trains (a “high-speed train” is defined by the Obama administration as one that runs at more than 90 miles per hour). In contrast, China has nearly completed a transportation revolution within one decade. Already having more than 4,400 miles of high-speed railways in service, the country plans to extend that network to more than 8,000 miles by 2012. A couple of weeks ago, one of China’s trains set a new speed record on an operating rail line between Shanghai and Hangzhou, hitting a speed of 260 miles per hour. But the Chinese are not complacent. Just last week, the Ministry of Railway’s chief engineer announced plans to have China’s trains running at a speed of up to 312 miles per hour.

The development of high-speed train epitomizes China’s rapid emergence as a great power. It should also serve as a wakeup call for U.S. policymakers, who seem to be losing their ability to do what is right for the country. Early this month, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie decided to halt a project that would add two more tracks to more than double the number of NJ Transit trains that could pass under the Hudson River (currently NJ Transit commuter trains and Amtrak cars share a century-old, two-track tunnel beneath the river, so when an Amtrak train is choked in the bottleneck, it causes significant delays for NJ commuter trains to and from New York City). Believe it or not, the project had been in the works for about two decades and had received a $6 billion commitment from the federal government and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Alas, we have money to fight two extremely expensive wars, but we do not have money to add two more tracks. Where is that “can-do” and “get-it-done” attitude that had characterized America’s state-building experience?

Photo courtesy Reuters/China Daily

Post a Comment 9 Comments

  • Posted by Michael Gibbons

    Japan Maglev record in 2003 was 361mph. It’s about time we started, and while we’re at it lets go ultra modern and go with the most experienced and highest quality control on the planet, the Japanese. They twice offered California High Speed rail quite some time ago. If they had been given the Go Ahead, by now the entire U.S. would be covered with high reliability Japanese rail.Is there anyone in our governing system that has any competency in anything?

  • Posted by Don

    I totally agree with the irony here that we have money to fight two extremely expensive wars, but we do not have money to add two more tracks. Having said that, I don’t quite agree with California’s approach of handing out high-speed rail contracts to China on a silver plate.

    Note that China’s high-speed rail was built under technology transfer agreements using variants of existing high-speed trains from Bombardier (German and Swedish trains), Alstom (Italy/France) and Kawasaki Heavy Industries (Shinkansen, Japan). We should work in partnership with companies like these along with Amtrak, GE, and Seimens to build the best high-speed rail network in the world. It can be done.

  • Posted by Jonathan

    The California model probably serves as a model for the rest of the country. Now if we could just get the California HSR system to get launched…

  • Posted by Huyu

    It is true that China is doing some good things on High-Speed Rail, which may become a good technology export industry. But we are not losing our humility and we know we are still just $3800 US earners compared to yours of $38000 US. Spare us the arrogance, please.

  • Posted by thurgood

    This article should be read by every GOP politician and operative as well as their “intellectual” mentors, the many variants of the so called “think tanks” in Washington DC and the many state capitals that are determined to put the kibbosh on infrastructure projects.

  • Posted by Kevin Larkin

    The train ride that’s mentioned in the article is the newish Gao Tie line between Shanghai and Nanjing, which takes around 70 minutes and is usually quite punctual.Train interiors are very nice (because they are still newish) and sometimes, you have a free choice of seating because the train rides half-empty.

    However, the tickets are relatively expensive and most people I know prefer to take the D-Trains, which are also fairly fast and reach more destinations throughout the country. Unfortunately, the D-Trains have experienced a series of delays recently, which is probably deliberately designed to put people off D-Trains in favour of more expensive G-Trains. Then again, G-Trains only run between Beijing-Tianjin, Guangzhou-Wuhan, Shanghai-Nanjing, and Shanghai-Hangzhou. Note that most of these distances (with the exception of the second one) are fairly short. Where it would really make a difference is the Beijing-Shanghai leg, which will be completed in 2012 (?)

    BTW Don, Bombardier is a Canadian company, Siemens is German, and I am pretty sure that Alstom is just French.

  • Posted by Pivot

    Given the population density of China, the sophisticated high-speed rail (HSR) system is destined to emerge sooner or later. Just like Europe and Japan, HSR is probably the most efficient and economical way of transportation. I think the HSR will come to US densely populated region eventually. However, I think right now is probably the best time for US to upgrade its railway system. If the Fed/Treasury could be more directional when stimulating the economy, a real transformation of the HSR in US could come sooner.By the way, it is not pleasant to see the wall street banks to invest in China (or other emerging market) with Fed’s money for higher return. It is a shame that to watch this opportunity slipping away through congressman’s fingers. In time of economic adversities, it may be better to calmly devise a long term plan to reinvigorate the nation and put it into action steadily rather than doing the finger pointing.

    Recently I have seen reports on Chinese firms trying to push into US market. I think it may be a proper time for US to take a reciprocal measures against those Chinese companies : a joined adventure is required, tech transfer is a must, and no more than 1 simultaneous JV at one time…With abundant capital gearing to be unleashed from Great wall, I guess US government could really use this leverage.

  • Posted by Zach

    Transportation in the U.S. is abysmal at best. I live near D.C. where it is impossible to take public transportation anywhere useful in any reasonable amount of time.

    The funny thing to me is how horrible the traffic is and how everyone jumps at the chance to complain about driving while ignoring the utter lack of real public transportation.

    I guarantee if you show the bus or train system in Tokyo to any American they will feel embarrassed – as they should. Public transportation in America is a monumental embarrassment.

  • Posted by guest

    The high speed rail network is a step in the right direction. Consider the following proposal:

    Is the Proposed Trans Global Highway a solution for future population concerns and global warming?

    One excellent solution to future population concerns as well as alleviating many of the effects of potential global warming is the Frank Didik proposal for the construction of the “Trans Global Highway”. The Didik proposed Trans Global Highway would create a world wide network of standardized roads, railroads, water pipe lines, oil and gas pipelines, electrical and communication cables. The result of this remarkable, far sighted project will be global unity through far better distribution of resources, including heretofore difficult to obtain or unaccessible raw materials, fresh water, finished products and lower global transportation costs.

    With greatly expanded global fresh water distribution, arid lands could be cultivated resulting in a huge abundance of global food supplies. The most conservative estimate is that with the construction of the Trans Global Highway, the planet will be able to feed several billion more people, using presently available modern farming technologies. With the present global population of just under 7 billion people and at the United Nations projection of population increase, the world will produce enough food surpluses to feed the expected increased population for several hundred years.

    Thomas Robert Malthus’s famous dire food shortage predictions of 1798 and his subsequent books, over the next 30 years, failed to take into consideration modern advances in farming, transportation, food storage and food abundance. Further information on the proposed Trans Global Highway can be found at .

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