Thursday, February 3, 2011

Today's High-Speed Rail Lesson: from China and Cornell

First article is from The Economist.  The second, short one is from a Cornell University Professor of Policy Analysis and Management. 

The Economist article talks about China and why, just maybe, they have overbuilt their high-speed rail system. Oops.  Only the well to do can afford to ride it.  Many trains are half empty.  But, the government heads don't care.  

They are doing this for the PR and the employment. In a top-down economic system, you can do whatever you want. They don't have to listen to anyone. What they're building is to impress the rest of the world.  Remember the dazzling Bejing Olympics? Their HSR will be just as practical. 

Wow, does all that sound familiar!

Prof. Geddes makes all the same observations that you have been reading here in this blog, only with more authority.   He says we can't afford it. It's a waste of money.  It won't accomplish anything the promoters are trying to make us believe.  

His per-mile cost estimates are an average and don't mean that much.  Some areas are obviously less costly than others. Running new rail corridors through urban areas is the most expensive, unless it's through mountains. There it could be twice as much as the $50 million per mile average, or more.

There is very little experience based speculation about the real costs for HSR construction although we know that those numbers can triple or more all the forecasts.  Even now, in California, the tab for various segments and sections increases daily. 

Then there's the freight compatibility issue. The freights don't want HSR anywhere near their corridors. That's going to be a huge problem.  And, Prof. Geddes thinks that there are some corridors, presumably the NEC, that are HSR worthy.  Well, maybe, although certainly not on a cost/benefit basis.

So, my question for today is, how long will we continue to be stupid?

Attention CHSRA. Want us to be impressed about high-speed rail in China?  Well, here's a lesson from China for you!

On the wrong track?

Feb 3rd 2011, 16:12 by M.A. | BEIJING

JUDGING from the votes they have cast with their bottoms, China's business travellers need little persuading of the merits of high-speed rail. Since the high-speed link between Wuhan and Guangzhou opened in December 2009, for instance, over 20m have chosen the zippier trains, while the number of competing daily flights between Guangzhou and Changsha (on the route to Wuhan) has dropped from over 11 to three. 

Yet whether plans to double high-speed coverage by 2020 are an unmitigated good thing for China, which already has more high-speed rail than any other country, is a different question.

It is one that decision-makers have largely sidestepped thanks to the peculiarities of China's political system. But of late debate has spilled over into the public realm. 

Detractors complain that high-speed rail is too expensive for the Zhang in the street. Migrant labourers, 230m of whom are expected to make the journey home during Spring Festival, are not in enough of a hurry to pay a premium for speed, they argue. 

(Or as Patrick Chovanec of Tsinghua University puts it with a dose of economese, "The bulk of the long-distance passenger traffic, especially during the peak holiday periods, is migrant workers for whom the opportunity cost of time is relatively low.") While some travellers are having such a hard time getting tickets home this holiday season that they have unveiled their underpants in protest, it is reported that on one line $352 luxury sleeper tickets are going begging.

This mismatch raises questions about the $300 billion being thrown at high-speed rail this decade. Many newly added lines are making hefty losses and many are thought to be operating at under half capacity The Chinese Academy of Sciences, an influential official think-tank, seems to be in the sceptics' corner: fretting about unsustainable levels of debt, it was reported in November to have recommended the government reconsider its plans. Chinese leaders were said to have ordered a review, and construction of a Maglev line between Shanghai and Hangzhou has since been reported "shelved".

Some economists make even more dismal arguments. Mr Chovanec attacks one of the main legs of the economic case for high-speed rail in China, that transporting passengers thus would free up track desperately needed for shifting coal. Much of China's fuel travels by road: a 62-mile traffic jam outside Beijing lasting 10 days last August was only the most visible sign. But if fast trains are out of reach for the masses, there will be little or no relief for either rail or road networks. Critics say the proliferation of expensive trains has pushed poorer travellers back onto the roads, clogging them with 70,000 more buses this Spring Festival, although hundreds of extra trains have also been laid on. Improving China's languishing logistics network for freight would be a better use of the cash, Mr Chovanec posits.

Yet it would be premature to assume that China will not hit or even exceed its stratospheric targets. The Shanghai-Hangzhou Maglev was reported "shelved" in 2007, too, so its difficulties are not new; compounding them, there is now a separate high-speed (though slightly slower) connection between the two cities. China's mandarins are clearly not insusceptible to economic sense, and individual projects could bite the dust. But Chinese Communist Party leaders' economic priorities are defined by a different kind of cost-benefit analysis than that familiar to politicians in capitalist democracies.

What if some investments in whizzy rolling stock are loss-making? Famously unconstrained by electoral time horizons, they may be counting on demand for high-speed rail travel to rise with their citizens' wealth. And, as in industries like telecoms before, China's national railway-equipment champions will use the revenues drawn from the world's biggest market—where they are making decent profits—to support their move into overseas markets. It is a move already visible in recent export deals with the US.

Then there are the political payoffs. Even uneconomic construction work creates employment, enhancing social stability at a time when the global economy remains fragile. High-speed locomotives look jazzy, and offer yet more glittering evidence of the Communist party's modernisation of China. 
And the promise of placing China at the heart of a Eurasian rail network, as officials hope to do, hurts neither China's prestige, nor its ruling party's. Any trouble down the tracks would have to look pretty dire to derail all that.

U.S. High-Speed Rail Plans Are on the Wrong Track
Released: 2/3/2011 12:40 PM EST 
Source: Cornell University

Newswise — R. Richard Geddes, associate professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell University and author of “The Road to Renewal: Private Investment in U.S. Transportation Infrastructure,” comments on President Obama’s call for the development of an intercity high-speed rail network in the United States.

Geddes says:  “President Obama is calling for a high-speed passenger rail to connect our major cities, but the devil is in the details."

“For one, such a system would not be as green as advertised. To achieve the desired high speeds, the entire line must be electrified, requiring enormous amounts of energy, presumably from coal or nuclear sources. And existing freight tracks are not suitable for high-speed rail trains, meaning a new network of tracks must be installed, which, by current estimates, would cost more than $50 million per mile. Moreover, if freight train tracks are used, freight traffic would be disrupted, placing a larger burden on long-haul trucks, increasing environmental, infrastructure and safety harms.

“It is doubtful that the social and economic benefits of high-speed rail can justify such high costs, except in a few very high-density areas.”