[Source: Wikipedia]
[Source: Wikipedia]

Apparently the debate as to whether or not high-speed rail is a cost effective way to travel hasn’t reached China. The country continues to go full speed ahead with its plans to connect its commercial centers with high-speed railways – 9,356 kilometers so far, and they don’t plan on slowing down anytime soon.

This past December China launched the connector between Beijing and Guangzhou. The 2,298 kilometer-long rail is the longest high-speed route in the world. That would be 1,427 miles in the US, and would span about the distance between Los Angeles and Dallas. The Beijing-Guangzhou line cut what used to be a 22 hour trip to just eight hours. The route is undoubtedly China’s most fruitful, connecting the capital to Guangzhou’s Pearl River Delta, a region that has shown an astonishing rate of economic growth – between 1980 and 2000 the Delta’s economy swelled more than eleven-fold. A major manufacturing hub and one of China’s most crowded regions, the Delta includes nine cities that are currently being connected with one-hundred and fifty major infrastructure projects including 10 routes of high-speed rail to connect the disparate cities into a single megacity four times the population of New York.

And then there’s the rest of China.

By 2015 (that’s just 2 more years!) China is projected to nearly double to 18,000 kilometers of high-speed rail. By 2020 they plan on expanding to 50,000 kilometers.

China's high-speed passenger line already connects most of the country's major cities. [Source: Wikipedia]
China’s high-speed passenger line already connects most of the country’s major cities. [Source: Wikipedia]
The profusion of high-speed railways is already affecting the other high-speed mode of transportation. China’s three big airline carriers, Air China, China Southern Airlines and China Eastern Airlines, as well as others collectively reported losses for three months in a row – together, 1 billion yuan ($160 million) in the month of January. While other factors contributed to the losses, competition from high-speed rail has impacted demand enough that carriers have droppped many short-haul flights and increased the number of long-haul ones. Air China, for example, recently opened new Beijing-Geneva and Chengdu-Frankfurt routes last month in an effort to increase their market share in Europe. Carriers are also being forced into drastic ticket price reductions. According to South China Morning Post, promotional tickets are now being routinely offered at a discount of 90 percent or more, making them even cheaper than the cheapest seats available on many high-speed trains.

The use of high-speed rail in China continues to escalate despite the collision of two high-speed trains in Wenzhou in 2011. Officials blamed the collision on an overly-ambitious rate of expansion that led to “neglect of safety management.” The crash left left 40 dead, 172 injured and expedited the firing of China’s railway minister Liu Zhijun who was already facing corruption charges.

China’s ambitious plans will allow them to pull further ahead as the world leader in high-speed rail. Ground covered by their bullet trains have long since passed high-speed rail pioneer countries in Europe. In the United States, meanwhile, high-speed rail remains at a near standstill. In plain disagreement with pretty much the rest of the developed world, the US is slower than an 8th generation Honda Civic to adopt high-speed trains. Right now Amtrak’s Acela Express that runs the northeast corridor between Washington DC and Boston is the country’s sole high-speed rail service. Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida all rejected federal grants to build routes between 2010 and 2011. Florida’s governor Rick Scott said the projects were “too costly to taxpayers” and that “the risk far outweigh[ed] the benefits.”

But just weeks ago, nearly five years of battling a lawsuit that sought to keep the route from passing through certain cities, California has been given the go ahead on building a high-speed rail service between San Francisco and Los Angeles, a stretch of about 380 miles. The project is expected to cost $68 billion and be completed around 2028. If all projections are correct, the 600 or so kilometers laid down will take eight years longer than it would have taken China to build almost 48,000 kilometers.

A quarter of the world’s largest 500 urban areas are located in China, and the country’s urban population is expected to reach 900 million by 2030. It’s a big country, but clearly they want to shrink it through high-speed rail. If China’s economy comes anything close to surpassing that of the US – projected by some to occur in 2018 – surely the future will see there more manufacturing hubs like Pearl River Delta, a collection of cities that combine powers through high-speed links to become a kind of megacity. The 50,000 kilometers projection by 2020 seems, frankly, outrageously ambitious. But unlike the US, China seems single-minded in their positive thinking about high-speed rail, and no doubt they’re going to go at it with full speed to make it happen.

Peter Murray was born in Boston in 1973. He earned a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore studying gene expression in the neocortex. Following his dissertation work he spent three years as a post-doctoral fellow at the same university studying brain mechanisms of pain and motor control. He completed a collection of short stories in 2010 and has been writing for Singula...

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