Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Washington Post's Editorial on China's High-Speed Rail Disaster

This Washington Post editorial says, better than I could what I've been trying to say since the Chinese rail accident.  You know, the one that was predictable, since there has been a recent history of corruption, cheating on construction, safety issues, power outages and other mechanical failures. "Haste makes waste, rail builders of China!"  

I suppose that in authoritarian China, the loss of a large number of lives is no big deal, given a population of 1.3 billion people.  "Easy come, easy go." We may never know just how many were killed in this accident.  Given the absolute power of the ruling autocracy, first they tried to literally bury the evidence -- a literal "cover-up" -- of what happened and why. But because of huge public outrage, they are now digging up the buried railroad cars to look for evidence. First the government issued statements prohibiting any news on the event, suppressing the press, but now they are talking about "transparency." 

What are the issues here?  In the US, and from the President, we never heard an end to the fact that the Chinese were doing a wonderful thing by building thousands of miles of HSR routes, and their trains were faster than anybody else's.  They were winning the train race and we weren't even in the race.  Shame on us!!!  Aren't we competing with China for WORLD DOMINATION?  We're supposed to be number one about everything, especially if its about shiny metallic things that go fast.

Now, with this calamity, are we having second thoughts about our entry into this pointless race?  Are we reconsidering the high costs of the entry fee?  Are we watching that their trains often run empty since so few in China can afford the high-priced tickets?

Apparently not.  Certainly not in California where the lust for this rail-based "vision of a better future" still haunts so many people.  It even haunts those who have been making a lot of noise about how terrible this train project will be "in our neighborhood."

These are the "objectors" who only object if it's "elevated." Otherwise, they think it's really a good idea.  So much for our grass-roots opposition in California.  Wouldn't you think that what's happening in China is an object lesson to which we should pay a lot of attention?  To the contrary.  We are told by our outspoken colleagues that we shouldn't generalize from this one event or make too much of it. That's because doing so would threaten the likelihood of getting this train running through our neighborhood. With friends like that, who needs enemies?

The last sentence of this Washington Post editorial is:  The only mystery is why people in the West who should have known better, looked at high-speed rail in China and saw a model for the United States — instead of an accident waiting to happen.

I would suggest that High-Speed Rail in California is a disaster waiting to happen.  I suspect that the reason for so much support for HSR is the inability to see the forest for the trees.  The question that each and everyone of us should be asking is how does it get paid for and who will be doing the paying?  And, if built, who will be using it?  The best answer I can come up with, it will be paid for by the taxpaying classes at all levels, but used only by the affluent who can afford the tickets. ("Why should the poor be paying to build a train used only by the rich?")

The fact is that it won't that solve any of the promised problems; not congestion, not fuel consumption, not unemployment, not a failing economy, not the damaged environment. Instead it will perpetuate financial harm to the state, probably forever. 
The politics of China’s high-speed train wreck

By Editorial, Published: July 27

FOR MONTHS, it has been increasingly obvious that China’s shiny new high-speed rail system is not the triumph of national planning that Beijing or Western admirers claimed. The Chinese government this year fired top rail officials for alleged wrongdoing , an implicit recognition that corruption and debt plague the project.

Many of those who questioned the economics of high-speed rail in China also argued that authorities were cutting corners on safety in their rush to build the world’s largest bullet-train network. Those accusations, too, received tacit confirmation when China announced in April that it would cut the trains’ top speed by 30 miles per hour.

Too late: Last Saturday, China’s high-speed rail produced the long-feared catastrophe. Two bullet trains collided in the eastern province of Zhejiang, leaving more than three dozen people dead and scores more injured.

The terrible collision is not only a human tragedy but also a major blow to the credibility of the communist government, which had hoped to sell its trains to other countries – including the United States. Authorities blamed a lightning strike for causing one train to stall out, after which a second train rear-ended it, causing four cars to plunge off a bridge.

Unlikely on its face, this scenario does not explain why no fail-safe mechanism halted the second train after the first stopped. That’s what would have happened in Japan, where bullet trains have operated for half a century with zero fatalities.

The Ministry of Railways in Bejing then promised a “serious” and “honest” investigation. Communist party officials immediately undermined that pledge by instructing Chinese media not to report the matter aggressively but rather “to use ‘in the face of great tragedy, there’s great love’” as the major theme. “Do not question. Do not elaborate. Do not associate.”

A flood of skeptical, even angry, comment on the Chinese Internet suggests that the damage-control effort isn’t working. As more and more Chinese are realizing, the tragedy’s lessons are not only technological but also political. China’s high-speed rail system epitomizes the inherent flaws of authoritarian governance, not its strengths.

After a minimum of public discussion and despite contrary expert advice, the nation’s unelected rulers decided to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on a mode of transportation that many, if not most, ordinary Chinese cannot afford to use. As the cash flowed, well-connected officials lined their own pockets. Plan-fulfillment and national prestige took priority over passenger safety as officials muzzled reporters who dared to say otherwise.

In short, the high-speed rail program operated pretty much as you would expect in a one-party state with a controlled media and no effective checks and balances. The only mystery is why people in the West who should have known better looked at high-speed rail in China and saw a model for the United States — instead of an accident waiting to happen.

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