The Problem With China's High-Speed Rail

What a happy place the U.S. would be if we could zip from state to state on high-speed trains, never even considering taking short plane rides or spending hours in traffic just for a trip between neighboring big cities. This is, we're told, how it is in China, where a utopian network of trains carries people across the landscape in minutes. Reality check: China's growing network of high-speed trains is riddled with safety problems and corruption concerns. 

The situation is so bad that the Chinese government actually had to come out and admit that the high-speed rail safety situation is "severe" (hat tip, Washington Post.) Part of the problem is that contractors may have used low-quality fly ash mixed with other substances in construction instead of using the high-quality fly ash required in concrete train line construction. In layman's terms: They built it cheap and fast and out of shoddy materials. And now they're running trains on it really fast.

There is also the more amusing issue of villagers putting pigpens below railway bridges. This is more of a safety problem for the villagers tending to their pigs than for riders, but the issue of subcontractors cutting corners should be enough to keep potential traingoers in their cars. We can't think of anything much worse than being on a high-speed train that goes off the rails.

Earlier this year, the Chinese government also found evidence of corruption in the construction of the Beijing to Shanghai train line. The problem: some construction companies used fake invoices (presumably to line their pockets) and others employed supervisors who didn't have engineering licenses. Safety abounds in China.

But despite cutting corners and incurring a debt of $276 billion to build the trains, the Railway Ministry still can't get anyone to ride its trains, which are too expensive for most Chinese to afford.

Let this all be a lesson to the U.S, which admittedly will probably never end up with a large-scale high-speed rail system. There are a slew of potential problems to deal with in construction—costs, safety, towns that don't want high-speed trains passing through—and once the trains are built, people may not even want to ride them. This doesn't mean that high-speed rail is useless, but it isn't all sunshine and rainbows, either (except when it is).

[Photo Credit: Wikipedia]

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Read More: Forget the Environment, High-Speed Rail Is Good for Business

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  • Ryan Kegley

    The teaser blurb on the front page for this article reads, "Some people are starting to realize that maybe high-speed trains aren't the next great thing in transportation. We can thank China for the reality check." That's so shockingly misleading as to border on derisible. The point of the article isn't that there's anything wrong with high-speed trains, but that there's something wrong when shortcuts are taken and workmanship is shoddy. That's not news, that's common sense. That China's problems are meant to serve as demonstration of yet another potential roadblock to American acceptance of high-speed trains is simply asinine. That's like saying the issues surrounding Boston's Big Dig project would result in the U.S. reconsidering the use of highways as a major form of transportation. Lazy, lazy reporting.

  • Ariel Schwartz

    Highways were a popular means of transportation long before the Big Dig started. High-speed rail is still far from being accepted in many parts of the U.S. We should try to learn from all the high-speed rail projects currently being implemented around the world--to do anything less is irresponsible.

  • Andrew Krause

    You can hardly compare the unwillingness of Americans to adopt high speed rail to the corruption and lack of oversight of the Chinese government. You're trying to compare apples to orangutans here.

    Kegley's harsh criticism is still valid - fix the teaser. Otherwise, you're just trolling for a debate on the whole issue of high speed rail... which is irresponsible.

  • ddm

    " In layman's terms: They built it cheap and fast and out of shoddy materials. "


  • Matt

    Forty million people traveled on just one line of China's new high speed rail system in its first two years of service. That is not "nobody".

    Corruption exists in China. It exists everywhere. They got the bad guy. They are "reviewing" expansion plans, not terminating them. Construction continues. As it is elsewhere.

    Meanwhile our economic recovery is threatened by another oil price shock, in part because some insist on forcing a petroleum-dependent 1950s transportation system on us all.

    This "bash Chinese High Speed Rail" effort is the latest feature of an orchestrated misinformation campagin by Beltway think tanks who believe that American Exceptionalism means denying our citizens the freedom to travel how they wish in out most traveled corridors.

    They want to keep all transportation subsidies for roads and aviation.