High-speed rails (HSR) have been built in China at a fanatic pace. Figure this will be an entry to get the debate started.
The first HSR, the Shanghai Maglev Train, was completed in late 2003. It was a technical trial and showcase. After its completion and initial operation, the Maglev technology was deemed too expensive to build and maintain. China decided to roll out its national HSR system with the wheel-based technology. Here is a map of China’s HSR system in 2020:
Those HSRs are an engineering marvel to behold. For example, 2/3 of the Guangzhou – Wuhan line is either on elevated tracks or through tunnels. In the upcoming Beijing – Shanghai line, there will be a 168 KM non-stopped land bridge in Southern Jiangsu to Shanghai.
A few points about those HSRs:
1. When properly connected to the urban mass transit systems, they are by far the best means to travel for up to maybe low 1000 KMs. Advantages include shorter door-to-door time, better energy efficiency and less pollution.
2. Those projects in China seem to be reasonably within the initial budget and timeline. For instance, when the Wuhan – Guangzhou line was planned, it was budgeted for 93 billion yuans, and completed by the end of 2010. When the line was completed, the actual cost was 108 billion yuan, 16% over the intial budget; and it was completed by the end of 2009, one year ahead of the initial schedule. The additional cost was mostly blamed on the commodity price increase. Just to compare, the Boston “Big Dig’s” final cost was near 250% of the initial budget, and 5 years late.
My personal take is that in China, there is still the sense of accountability among public servants. In modern democracies, politicians are essentially in perpetual campaigning mode. Public works almost by default will turn into some sort of white elephants for the well-connected contractors to milk the public coffers. Double to triple of the initial cost and schedule estimates is pretty much the par. You can’t help but wonder how this will turn out for the upcoming HSR projects in the US – if everything goes according to the plan, the first shovel of the California HSR is supposed to be sometime this year.
3. With the financial meltdown, commodity prices came crashing down. A large portion of the Chinese stimulus money went into expediting the infrastructure build-out. The rationale seemed to be, there was a window of opportunity to lock in some low prices for the commodities needed.
4. There are also some detractors of those HSRs. For instance, Michael Pettis wrote: “Even if [the HSRs] were justified in the US or Europe, where the economic value of every hour saved is many times the value in China, they are probably not justified in China. After all an American might gladly pay $100 a month to cut his daily commuting time by one hour, but for most households in Beijing or Shanghai this would be the equivalent of paying one-third to one-fifth of their income – probably not worth it. And note that I am not even mentioning one of the sub-stories in this article – that China’s airline industry may be seriously hurt by the high-speed rails even as China is splurging on a massive airport investment program.”