Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Will the US High-Speed Rail Program Die of China Syndrome?

Today's key word is:  Over-reaching.  That sums up China's ambitions for global prestige via High-Speed Rail.

Empire building. It is the height of irony that a "Communist" country such as China, one of the last since the fall of the Soviet "Communist" Empire, is determined to acquire all the trappings of a new global economic empire.  

HSR is nothing more than a statement of that self-claimed economic superiority.  And, as we now see, it's an empty claim.  It reeks of corruption, shoddy construction, and gross over-building.  Apparently, it was intended for the rising upper classes, with luxurious fittings and very high costs.  But that's not who China is. . .yet.

Remember our high-school literature class? What do we call "overweening pride?" Hubris.

We, in the US and in California, are on exactly the same self-destructive track.  You will recall that 'Hubris' is one of the major attributes of the Tragic Hero.  But in this case, there is nothing tragic about what we are doing.  Merely willful arrogance and stupidity. 

Why are we filled with envy for a country whose population is approaching a billion and a half?  Why do we seek to emulate the posturing and conspicuous consumption of a nation that still reeks of severe poverty and where a $63. dollar train ticket constitutes one month's salary?  Even with their enormous economic growth, China has spent itself into serious debt with this ambitious HSR plan which is gradually crumbling as the harsh hand of reality reveals all the flaws of their rail system aspirations.

Speed reduction has nothing to do with the corruption that is endemic to China. It does have something to do with the lousy construction that resulted from doing too much, too fast, and too sloppy.  

But, reducing speed (and therefore lengthening trip times) is also an economic measure to reduce operating costs, and that's a point we have been driving at on this blog.  Speed costs. It costs in "fuel;" that is, electric power (produced by coal burning power plants). It also costs in much higher maintenance and parts replacement. 

In other words, the faster the train, the lower the cost-benefit ratio.  That is to say, it is of benefit to ever fewer people at ever higher cost.  (I call your attention to the now-in-museums Mach 2 Concorde commercial aircraft, with its $10,000. one way tickets.  Also Hubris!  We've discussed this in prior blog entries.)

So, our final point is that China has been building a train system that most people in China can't afford to ride.  Currently, most HSR trains run near empty.  They've had to slow them down, take out the luxury fittings and reduce ticket costs.  Needless to say, these trains are massively subsidized and the debts incurred to build and operate them are enormous. 

There is no awareness -- of any of this -- among people within the HSR community in the US. So, we support the HSR promoters as they stumble into the same crisis that now permeates China's HSR efforts.  

Could we not be a little smarter than the Chinese, or smarter than our own ambitious, prideful HSR promoters, and not go down this road which, as we know so well, leads directly a cliff?

High-Speed Trains in China to Run Slower, Ministry Says
Published: June 13, 2011

BEIJING — China’s troubled Railway Ministry on Monday lowered the top operating speed for its flagship Beijing-to-Shanghai bullet train, which is set to open later this month, scaling down what was supposed to be a pinnacle of a transformed rail system that has become one of the country’s proudest and most ambitious domestic initiatives.

The new line, once set to run at up to 236 miles per hour, will instead run trains at 186 and 155 miles per hour, the ministry announced.

That puts the line at the same speeds that the ministry had announced in February for eight other trunk lines on the network, which is still being built. Those trunk lines originally were set to run at a top speed of 217 miles per hour, slightly slower than the Beijing-to-Shanghai route.

The reduced speeds stem from sweeping changes the ministry has made since the rails minister, Liu Zhijun, was fired on corruption and mismanagement charges in February. Some critics had charged that Mr. Liu built a high-speed-rail empire that was both too costly for average riders and marred by shoddy, quick construction that, at a minimum, might require lower speeds.

The ministry’s new leaders sent safety inspectors to the Beijing-to-Shanghai line, and this month it was pronounced safe for use. But in recent days, the Railway Ministry and rail security officials had warned that the high-speed lines face other hazards, from inadequately secured tracks to mines built near the lines, that pose potentially serious risks.

Vice Minister Hu Yadong told reporters Monday that the trains could run at the higher speed, but the reductions would have broad benefits, making it easier for more traditional, more affordable trains to operate and saving on maintenance and power.

Rail officials also said they had scrapped plans for luxury compartments and would offer cheaper classes of service. The new line will halve the 10-hour rail trip between the country’s great metropolises, but even the lowest ticket price of about $63 nearly equals the net monthly income for rural residents.

The policy used “the satisfaction of the people as the basic requirement for evaluating railway work,” Mr. Hu said.

The plans, developed as China’s economy took fire, include nearly 8,100 miles of high-speed rail lines and some 11,000 miles of traditional railroad lines, at a cost of $750 billion.

In the past few months, some foreign companies that sold China its high-speed technology said the trains were not designed to operate at 215 miles per hour. The ministry said that Chinese engineers had improved on the foreign technology and that the trains were safe at the higher speeds.

China depends on mass transit to a high degree, but many trains are overcrowded and filthy, and hundreds of millions of people face days of misery annually as they head to their hometowns and villages for the Lunar New Year.

Even as the Rail Ministry announced the policy changes, it was the subject of a rare protest in tightly controlled central Beijing. More than 100 demobilized soldiers and their families traveled 750 miles, from the northeastern city of Harbin, to gather at the ministry’s fortress-like headquarters and chant accusations of corruption in hiring.

They said that the ministry had reneged on promises of jobs, rigging tests in favor of better-connected candidates.

“We love China!” the protesters shouted. “Give us our jobs!” The protesters, many of them wearing T-shirts saying “I am from a military family,” said they had tested for the jobs but that the results were rigged.

Michael Wines contributed reporting, and Shi Da contributed research.

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