VIENNA, Va., November 30, 2011 — There’s something about China’s new network of high-speed railways that has some Americans longing for a breezy ride on a bullet train.
In fact, few of the Middle Kingdom’s other modern feats have caused such envy among US politicians and policy-makers. China’s space program is reaching new heights and aims to put a man on the moon in the coming years, but – yawn – we have been there and done that. Like more than 40 years ago.
Sure, China’s economy is in a lot better shape than ours, but we know, of course, that many developing nations experience large-scale growth. We’ve been there and done that, too.
We might feel a little concerned about China’s cyber-warfare capabilities, but then we remember our superior democratic process, and “Communist China’s” human rights problems, and we quickly feel much better.
But something about China’s high-speed railways really commands our attention. The country now operates 13 high-speed railways and has 26 more under construction, and Chinese officials say the network will cover 10,000 miles by 2020. That’s a lot of railroad ties.
President Barack Obama is the most prominent person to appeal to our nation of highway navigators to take the keys out of the ignition and board the trains of the future. In his 2011 State of the Union speech he said, “Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80% of Americans access to high-speed rail, which could allow you go places in half the time it takes to travel by car. For some trips, it will be faster than flying - without the pat-down.”
After a high-speed rail crash killed 40 people near Wenzhou, China, Obama — seemingly unfazed — continued to hold China up as an example, telling the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s awards gala in mid-September, “At a time when countries like China are building high-speed rail lines and gleaming new airports, we’ve got over a million unemployed construction workers … who could be doing the same thing right here in the United States. That’s not right.”
Back to the future
Sam Staley, a research fellow at Reason Foundation who also teaches classes in economics and urban planning at Florida State University, says a “nostalgia” for trains still exists in the mind of many Americans.
“It’s a curious thing. The train…has this science fiction quality to it that also symbolically and metaphorically links us to the future,” said Staley. “[It has] this unique ability to capture our imagination because it is grounded enough in nostalgia — and in American history.”
And yet public support for high-speed rail seems to be shrinking, at least in some regions. A 2010 study by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) found support for bullet train lines from 62 percent of the 24,000 people surveyed. Not bad – but as the public’s concern about government spending has gone up, support for the costly projects seems to have gone down. The Sacramento Business Journal, for example, reported that 60 percent of the 500 or so people it surveyed opposed California’s high-speed rail projects.
Nonetheless, some experts cling to the hope that the mode of transport – popular in Asia and Europe – will eventually be embraced here in the US.
Petra Todorovich, co-author of a recent study by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy titled “High Speed Rail: International Lessons for U.S. Policy Makers”, argues that the US should first focus on bringing high-speed railways to mega-regions, or clusters of urban communities – particularly in the northeast corridor and in California.
“It’s about making the whole mega-region more competitive to attract and retain jobs and compete better with not just other regions in the US, but with other regions around the world,” said Todorovich. “That gain in productivity experienced by workers would raise income levels and grow the economy.”
With the construction of high-speed railways already underway in some parts of the country, the issue is sure to remain with us for some time. But politicians and policy-makers would be wise not to continue using China as a model – and not just because of the safety concerns.
In 2010, I visited a Chinese village that sits in the shadow of the Wuhan-Guangzhou high-speed rail, which zips by at around 300 kph on an elevated track. Few of the people in Nonghua, outside of Changsha, Hunan province, will ever ride the train, but most saw the bullet train as a boon, if only because the construction company that built it agreed to repave the road that runs through their village.
This may sound like a small thing, but for this Chinese community, the construction of the high-speed rail was life-giving. During my visit, the new road pulsed with activity. A man in a squeaky three-wheel tractor used it to deliver a pig. A wedding caravan of shiny black Audis pulled into a driveway to pick up the bride from her parents’ home. Boys rode snake-boards and shot hapless ducklings with NERF arrows (see video below).
The passengers being whisked past this village would later de-board at stops along the route and find reliable bus and taxi networks waiting to carry them close – if not to the doorstep – of their final destination.
While the cost of riding the bullet trains are still high, relative to slower trains, high-speed rail has been deemed more or less a worthwhile investment for a country where only a small percentage of the people have ever taken a plane.
Contrast that picture with the situation in the US. Most American towns – even the smallest – are not dying for a paved road (although some may need a few potholes filled). And for a bullet train that spans the country to be truly useful, there would need to be a reliable network of low-price buses and taxis that can ferry riders to hotels and jobs — or to Aunt Betty’s for Thanksgiving dinner.
Having lived in northern Virginia for more than a year without a car, I can tell you that suburban public and commercial transport has a long way to go. A cross-country bullet train with stops in suburban America would be of little use to anyone who didn’t have a car waiting for them on the other end.
As the debt debate continues, and as infrastructure bills are put forward and amended, politicians will use high-speed rail projects to rally support – or opposition. But both parties would do well to worry less about China’s growing network of high-speed railways and look more closely at their own blueprints for economic growth and infrastructure development.
Pinning our hopes on cross-country high-speed trains will most likely get us nowhere very fast.
Charlie Shifflett spent six years in China, including four working as a writer and section editor at a state-owned weekly newspaper in Beijing. He is currently the website and communications manager for the international microfinance non-profit Five Talents, in Vienna, Virginia.
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