The Problem With China’s High-Speed Rail

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.


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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About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.