Saturday, January 29, 2011

Is HSR for the classes or the masses? See China.

I don't read the Hindustan Times that often, but here is an article about rail travel in China that is dated tomorrow, January 30.  You can't get more current than that.  This article is about taking trains in China and how much fun it is. 

To begin with, we are talking about four times more people than live in the US.  1.5 billion.  And, China, for all it's rush to economic success and burgeoning wealth, remains a poor per capita country with an average income of around $5,000.   That's why they make all our stuff for cheap.

Therefore their need for public transit, both inner- and inter-city, is absolutely immense.  By comparison, the US is barely settled.  While China rushes to pour its newly acquired billions into not only rail, but highway, airport, automobile and aircraft construction, it can barely meet the overwhelming demand.  We are in a situation nothing even remotely close to that.  Nor will we be. China is in the midst of its Industrial Revolution.  The US is struggling in a post-Industrial phase of its evolution.

As you know, the Board members of the CHSRA have taken many luxury junkets to various high-speed rail countries, including China.  These tours are sponsored by the countries and their national industries that build these trains, in the hope of winning a fat contract from the rail authority.  Do you believe that our Board members were ever exposed to the harsh realities described in this article?  When Mr. Diridon proclaims how wonderful elevated trains are by citing examples in China, and I'm sure he had several trips, I have to wonder on what planet he exists on and how remote from reality he is.

Clearly, high-speed rail is as much a luxury for the upper classes in China as it will be here in the US.  That is what this CHSRA Board wishes to construct.  And, it is aimed at the upper class potential rail riding population whose favor they curry.

There have been many comments in the press about how President Obama neglected a single mention of poverty and the growing number of poor people in the US, and what our government should be doing to help them.  Yet, he enthusiastically advocates high-speed rail as a panacea for the economic retardation of the US vis-a-vis other countries, such as China. The ironies of all this should escape no one. 

HSR is not for the poor or even for the working class of Americans or Chinese.  HSR is for the well to do in both countries.  What kind of country devotes its resources for the classes at the top to the neglect of the classes at middle and the bottom?

This is a question appropriate for Democrats -- the party of the working person -- such as myself. Why are we not supporting urban and regional commuter rail development that benefits most of our working population?  Why are we supporting the creation of a devastatingly expensive inter-city luxury train that will only benefit those who can afford the premium tickets and who least need it?  Does the corporate managerial class require more transit options?  Are their Gulfstreams insufficient?

Please let us be as realistic as possible about the potential market for high-speed rail in the US.  Who will be the customers?  And who will not be customers?  When considered in this light, it is a shameful prospect.
Hindustan Times
Reshma Patil,
Sunday, January 30, 3011

Beijing, January 30, 2011

Half of China on the move

The last ticket sold out as Chen Weiwei shuffled to third in queue at an eastern railway station where he waited for 14 hours from January 17-18. The enraged migrant stripped in the biting cold and stormed the station director's office to become an overnight national sensation.

Seven hundred million migrants, half the people of the most populous nation, are going home to wait for the lunar year of the rabbit. About 230 million, 12.5% more than last year, are boarding trains ahead of China's most politically charged holiday.

Outside the Beijing railway station, an unstoppable surge of passengers bending against the minus ten degree wind is on the move heaving suitcases, sacks and plastic paint cans stuffed with clothing in the largest annual migration on the planet. “Keep going straight!” passengers shouted as they were separated.

Women pressed against the walls peddled notebook-sized folding stools. For tens of millions boarding trains with supplies of instant noodles and roast duck, a ‘standing ticket’ and a 10-yuan (R70) stool will be their seat on journeys that may last three days across the world's fastest growing high-speed rail tracks.

“Even a fat person can sit on this,” said saleswoman Wang Juan.

During a 40-day peak that strains Chinese transport to the seams, migrants will make 2.85 billion journeys by road, rail and air for ritual family reunions with dumplings, firecrackers and red lanterns for the spring festival — chunyun — on February 3.

This year, China will invest $106 billion in railways and 70 inter-city projects, the People's Daily announced recently.

The mega investment is an irony for Sun Liyue, 33, who is not taking the train from Beijing to Xinjiang in the remote northwest because the 900-1,200 yuan ticket (R6,300-8,400) is pricey for a salesman's salary. "I have gone home twice in the past 15 years,'' Sun told HT. "The train ticket is really expensive and hard to get.''

“Returning home for spring festival, a long-standing tradition in China, now appears to be an unaffordable luxury,” said a recent Global Times editorial.

Software professional Zhao Shan, 29, would wake up at 6am and queue 'cold and hungry' for three hours for a ticket on the train to Hohhot, capital of Inner Mongolia, where her family will welcome the rabbit around a blaze of piles of coal. "I waited 15 days for one ticket,'' she told HT.

By 2010, China had 91,000 km train tracks compared to India's denser network of 63,327 km. It's still not long enough, but questions are being raised. Does China need more bullet trains or more affordable slow trains?

The latest launch of a Shanghai-Chengdu high-speed train where the best berth costs as much as an airline ticket immediately sparked a backlash against bullet trains.

The Chinese railroad will stretch to 120,000 km to its farthest borders and beyond to Singapore, and Vietnam, in five years. By 2012, China will have 13,000 km high-speed rail tracks, up from 8,358 km today, already the world's longest network. By 2015, the high-speed tracks will double to 16,000 km.

In June, the 33-billion-dollar 1,318 km Beijing-Shanghai bullet train will be launched a year ahead of schedule and just three years after Beijing rolled out its first 30-minute bullet train to Tianjin. Shooting at 380 kmph, the Beijing-Shanghai train will cut the 10-hour journey to under five hours. The world's fastest long-distance bullet train connecting southern Guangzhou with central Wuhan is not yet a year old and Chinese engineers are planning trains topping 500 kmph.

The masses are not marvelling at the rail revolution. "High-speed trains can't help relieve the stress on the railway system during this peak travel season as high-speed rail prices are unaffordable to migrant workers, and fast trains skip many small stations where their homes are located,'' said the People's Daily.

Authorities are aware that a ticket scramble and snowstorms can spark mass protests against the government policies and income inequalities. "If Chen could get a ticket by going naked, I will seriously consider doing the same thing next year,'' migrant worker Gui Yi, 24, told the China Daily.

In a mood to appease, President Hu Jintao has made a publicised visit to a low-income housing community.

India does not plan to build high-speed rail before 2012. The challenge, from China’s experience, is pricing a ticket.

© Copyright 2010 Hindustan Times