Artwork by Adam Ferriss; Image: EPA/YUAN ZHENG CHINA
The bullet train hurtles toward the industrial city of Taiyuan in northern China, and seemingly within seconds, the modern, smog-soaked Beijing skyline gives way to open fields. David Su is munching on pistachios in the bar car, careful that not a crumb hits his blue foulard scarf, as he heads some 320 miles to reach his early-morning appointment for a private equity firm. Over his shoulder, the Chinese countryside is a disembodied blur: farms and factories receding at the mind-aching speed of 186 miles per hour. Cars on a nearby highway seem to be creeping along by comparison.
Su travels frequently for his job at Global Capital Investments Group, and he likes this new high-speed train, zipping along on one of several dozen lines built by the Chinese government in a decade-long blitzkrieg program that now has a price tag of $500 billion.
“This will take a financial loss for a few years,” he says, as the aerodynamic carriage rocks and sways. “But 10 to 20 years from now? This will turn out to be a great investment. I mean, look at it now. It’s full!” He puts down his bag of pistachios to gesture to the car, where drowsy travelers are hidden behind newspapers, young hipsters are nodding along with their earbuds, and a group of policemen are playing a voluble game of cards: a workaday commuter scene in front of a hallucinogenic smear of color outside the windows.
China’s extraordinary high-speed train enterprise, officially launched in 2007, has often been held up as a grand case study for how a determined nation can build its way to prosperity. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has admiringly termed it a “moon shot”1 of technological confidence, of a piece with China’s front-line work in aviation, biosciences, and electric cars. Trains make dozens of departures a day from supermodern stations with indoor gardens and mirror-like floors; the lead cars are needle-nosed, their trailing bodies majestic and sleek as swans; and young attendants in zinfandel-colored uniforms and berets serve wine, beer, and coffee.
The trains eat up the journey from Beijing to Shanghai -- roughly the same distance as that between New York and Chicago -- in slightly less than five hours.The trains eat up the journey from Beijing to Shanghai -- roughly the same distance as that between New York and Chicago -- in slightly less than five hours. More than 6,000 miles of dedicated track connect these and other major cities, and the eight-hour run between Beijing and Guangzhou is the longest bullet-train line in the world. A majority of Chinese cities with populations over a half-million are supposed to be connected within the next 15 years.
Shrinking commute times are expanding the horizons of where employees can live and, as railroads always do, are boosting the value of land near train stations. Although some lines have struggled to find their customers, total ridership has been relatively healthy thus far: about 1.3 million people -- roughly a quarter of Chinese rail users -- climb aboard each day. Airlines have had to cut routes because of lost business.
But building so much in such a short period has necessitated dangerous shortcuts. Thousands of miles of track may not be up to international design standards. Forty passengers died in an accident that revealed a culture of deep-set and spectacular corruption, involving the embezzlement of millions of dollars. And the half-trillion-dollar enterprise rests on financing so shaky that work ground to a crawl in 2011, when the ministry responsible for the project couldn’t service its debt or pay hundreds of millions of dollars in bills -- requiring Beijing’s direct intervention. The state-owned group building roughly half of the rail encountered the very same problem in the fall of 2013, when it ran out of cash. In January, the company’s president “accidentally” fell to his death from the window of his Shanghai apartment.
The decision to radically accelerate rail is one manifestation of Beijing’s effort to push breathless economic growth through massive infrastructure projects. The goal has been to make China a “moderately prosperous society” by 2020. But, today, the rail project’s underlying financial dysfunction is representative of much broader and deeper flaws in China’s overall economic strategy.
All this is to say that those who consider China’s empire of rail a model of infrastructure development ought to take a more critical look -- and that countries gazing with understandable envy at the sleek marvels crisscrossing the Middle Kingdom should measure twice before they cut their first piece of rail.
Artwork by Adam Ferriss; Image: STR/AFP/Getty Images
High-speed rail may be a contemporary obsession, but it was invented decades ago by a Japanese engineer named Hideo Shima, who demonstrated in 1957 that a lightweight carriage could be made to travel at game-changing speeds by feeding power through a motor straight to each wheel. Electricity could be channeled to the train through a set of overhead wires and a pantograph -- a method similar to that used for years by city streetcars -- except that the whole apparatus had to be on a dedicated track kept free of road crossings and sharp curves.
Shima’s breakthrough attracted the attention of the head of Japanese National Railways, a curmudgeonly career bureaucrat named Shinji Sogo, who thought it was the right tool to save his beloved railway from obscurity at a time when automobiles were all the rage in the United States and Japan. Sogo -- nicknamed “Old Man Thunder” for his yelling -- deliberately fudged the estimated price tag of an inaugural link from Tokyo to Osaka. Acknowledging only half the cost of the project, he blustered his way through red tape to win approval for the Shinkansen, or “main truck line.” The sleek and graceful train, designed to look like an airplane’s fuselage, debuted in time for the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo and became a symbol of postwar Japanese pride and know-how. (France would develop its high-speed rail, TGV, from the same platform.)
In late-1990s China, the Ministry of Railways was eager to make room on its lines for an increasing number of freight cars, so it began phasing out sluggish passenger trains on short routes and hustling its long-distance trains -- a campaign dubbed “Speed Up.” The maximum locomotive speed was bumped from 30 to 100 miles per hour. The system’s total capacity opened up, and the distance traveled by an average passenger more than doubled. The ministry laid a pilot set of high-speed tracks in northern China, began planning the Beijing-Shanghai link, and in 2004 awarded a series of contracts to companies from France, Germany, and Japan.
The Ministry of Railways (a secretive bureaucracy nicknamed “Boss Rail”) purchased complete train sets from manufacturers like Alstom, Siemens, and Kawasaki -- as well as the technology for brake systems, traction converters, and control networks, which the Chinese then assembled in their own factories. China’s needle-nosed bullet trains can look quite distinctive with their white livery paint and “CRH” -- China Railway High-Speed -- in thick black block letters. But some are the Siemens Velaro model (a version of which set a 2006 world speed record at 250 mph); others are Alstom New Pendolinos (the favorite of Richard Branson’s Virgin Trains in Britain); still others are the Zefiro 250 type, made by the Canadian company Bombardier and equipped with 480 beds. Nearly all high-speed train models that China uses today have been refitted with new domestic-made parts, reverse-engineered once the patented machinery was safely within the country.
This process, which the government euphemistically calls “digestion and re-innovation,” demonstrates China’s genius for improving foreign technology, a skill once dominated by the Japanese, and it set the course for a home-built industry that would soon be able to export its own train sets and parts. For a country that was still manufacturing and using coal-fired steam trains as recently as the late 1990s,4 the rapid absorption of high-speed rail marked noteworthy progress. But it wasn’t enough to support an economy that, by 2003, was growing 10 percent annually and needed faster infrastructure to support its smoke-spewing factories and instant cities.
In 2008, the U.S. financial crisis soured the world economy, but the downturn was a great gift for Chinese rail.
If you were trying to dream up a tool for creating low-skilled employment, generating big construction contracts, and laying the foundations for continuing industrial prowess, you would have a hard time doing better than high-speed rail.If you were trying to dream up a tool for creating low-skilled employment, generating big construction contracts, and laying the foundations for continuing industrial prowess, you would have a hard time doing better than high-speed rail. There are jobs for everyone on the socioeconomic spectrum -- from top managers, to university-trained engineers, to sales agents, to running crews, to factory foremen, to shovel gangs.
On Nov. 9, 2008 -- a hinge moment in railroad history -- the central government announced a giant national stimulus package, and the following year it revealed that the largest chunk of money would go to improve public infrastructure. Investment in rail projects soared from $49 billion to $88 billion within the space of a year. And the original plan was to open 42 high-speed lines within the next three years. Not since Czar Alexander III built the Trans-Siberian Railway had a central authority taken on such an ambitious rail project.
The irony of Beijing’s embrace of high-speed trains is clear to those who know the country’s history. After British companies pried their way into China with gunboats during the Opium Wars in the mid-1800s, they urged their reluctant hosts to build railways. Initially resistant to the “fire cart” and fearing an influx of cheap imported goods, the Qing dynasty -- with an eye toward opening up coal mines in the country’s interior -- eventually capitulated and allowed foreign contractors to build several lines. Chinese army strategists also realized that, with the help of a railway, “one soldier can have the impact of a dozen” -- and that rail could be used to fight the British if they ever invaded again.
In the end, however, the real threat to the Chinese government came from all the short-term borrowing it engaged in to build the first lines. The national debt metastasized to crushing levels, and with the government unable to keep up with loan payments, foreign banks were only too happy to foreclose on the railway’s assets. The entire system was under foreign control by the turn of the century, one more insult to a population that was already roiling amid its so-called “century of humiliation” at the hands of the West.
That public resentment fueled the Boxer Rebellion -- a violent assault on Christians and foreigners, which began in 1899 -- and was further stoked by the Boxers’ defeat at the hands of foreign troops and by the indemnities that France, Germany, Britain, and the United States subsequently demanded. The Qing dynasty was weakened, and, in 1911, protests broke out nationwide. One of the worst flash points was the nationalization of the Sichuan-Hankou railway, which ran through Hubei province and had been financed by locals. Furious over the loss of their savings, thousands of protesters gathered in Sichuan, and troops fired into the crowds, killing dozens. The attempt to crush the “Railway Protection Movement,” as these anti-Qing groups were called, ultimately failed, embarrassing the dynasty and fueling demands for a new form of government.
The next year, the Chinese imperial system -- which had stood for more than 2,000 years in the hands of various family dynasties -- collapsed. It had survived plagues, invasions, famines, civil wars, and droughts, but it was rail that finally tipped it over the edge.
Artwork by Adam Ferriss; Image: STR/AFP/Getty Images
One hundred years later, another railway line running through the very same province put China’s central government under pressure once again.
March is not typically the wettest month in the Yangtze River valley, but in 2012 the spring thunderstorms had been heavy. Rain pounded the newly built Wuhan-Yichang line, slowly but surely weakening the rail bed running through Hubei’s crop fields -- until finally nine kilometers of rail sank several millimeters before collapsing altogether. The entire section needed to be replaced. The line was temporarily taken out of commission, and hundreds of laborers were set to work night and day shoring the damage and laying new concrete rails with heavy equipment. The director of Hubei’s construction bureau told the Wall Street Journal that the rain was not to blame. “If the rain could destroy a railway line, then what kind of a project is that?” he asked, perhaps missing the irony.1
It was an apt question. The week before, Chinese media reported that managers of the project had not used chipped rock, known as “spall,” within the foundation, as had been ordered. Instead, they had substituted ordinary soil, which is cheaper, and had pocketed the difference. After interviewing a mole within the Ministry of Railways, the Global Times, a mouthpiece of the Communist Party, wrote that substitutions like this had been common over the years and “amount[ed] to building a house on the foundation of cake.” Indeed, the collapse spoke to a serious defect potentially underlying thousands of miles of track -- not just in the soil but in the concrete.
Concrete is the sine qua non of China’s whole rail empire because much of the track bed is elevated on giant gray stilts to carry trains over small farms, creeks, dirt roads, and whatever else might be in the way. The 819-mile line from Beijing to Shanghai, for example, is up on a viaduct for some 80 percent of its length, supported by a set of relentless marching columns, each about 15-feet thick and varying in height according to the undulating landscape. The columns were supposed to be made of a blend of gravel, cement, and a strengthening product called “fly ash,” which was to be harvested from the smokestacks of China’s coal-fired power plants.
In 2008, when the rail project went into high gear, the China Railway First Survey and Design Institute estimated that there was enough supply of high-quality fly ash to build approximately 100 kilometers of high-speed track a year. But China’s breakneck building program far exceeded that pace and, in fact, required more fly ash than all the coal plants on the planet could have produced. So some construction firms abridged the recipe to meet tight deadlines, buying substandard fly ash and using their pull with the government to bypass normal quality-control procedures.
As a result, much of the concrete in China’s 6,000-mile rail system is brittle and prone to collapse. Southwest Jiaotong University’s Zhu Ming told the South China Morning Post in 2011 that if China continues to opt for low-quality fly ash, “judgment day” could come within five years of laying the track. The infrastructural integrity of the rail, he said, will not present “small problems such as occasional cracks and slips that delay trains for hours,” but the “big problems that will postpone an entire line for days, if not weeks.”
“When that happens,” Zhu said, “the miracle of Chinese high-speed rail will be reduced to dust.” (The Ministry of Transport, the State Railways Administration, and China Railway Corp. did not respond to Foreign Policy’s request for comment.)
High-speed construction, rather than quality, seems to have been the top priority for much of China’s great high-speed railway surge. Jan Moorlag, a project manager who worked for a Dutch contracting firm on the Wuhan-Guangzhou line, recalled that his section of rail was set to open in December 2009. During the construction of a six-mile-long tunnel, however, the project started to fall behind. So a local contractor went to his Chinese boss and told him that the Ministry of Railways should be told of the delay, Moorlag explained. “Well, I think this guy would have rather have hanged himself than lose face,” he said. “The boss made phone calls all night long, and by the next morning, there were 500 extra people at the job site.” Within a week, everything was back on schedule. “The project is always delivered on time -- period,” Moorlag said.
Rail construction in China has often been marked by this bizarre melding of the superfast and the primitive.Rail construction in China has often been marked by this bizarre melding of the superfast and the primitive. The crews called up on short notice are little more than human shovel brigades, without even basic machinery like bulldozers. “There’s not much mechanical equipment on those job sites,” Moorlag said. “They have people, and people are cheaper.” Struck by the simple country muscle of this large-scale construction project, he documented the efforts in a photo album, which shows workers hauling flagstones by hand and pouring wet concrete out of handcarts.
The haste not only undermined quality control during construction, but it handicapped analysis that should have been conducted before workers ever turned the first spade of earth. “We really could not guarantee the quality of our construction work,” an unnamed engineer on some of the rail projects told Du Junxiao, an editor of the People’s Daily, in 2011. “For some projects, the steps of survey, design, and construction were all done at the same time. Some projects were handled even worse and didn’t even go through these three steps.”
Another project engineer told Du that he, himself, would never take high-speed rail for fear of his life. Du commented, “Since those who participated in the construction of the HSR [high-speed rails] dare not ride them, there must be serious problems.”2
Sure enough, on July 23, 2011, near the city of Wenzhou, a train proceeded through “dark territory” -- that is, a patch of line uncovered by signals -- and rammed into the rear of a stalled train cleared to enter the same stretch of track.A bullet train passes the wreckage of two other high-speed trains which collided two days earlier, in the town of Shuangyu in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang, on July 25, 2011.
The impact knocked three carriages off a viaduct and 65 feet down to the ground below, killing 40 people. The first official response was drenched in Mao-style opacity. Newspapers across China were directed to run only brief stories. “Do not question. Do not elaborate,” warned China’s Propaganda Department in a memo. One of the mangled carriages was immediately buried on the scene (authorities claimed they needed the space for “rescue staging”), and lawyers were warned not to bring any liability cases.
Then-Premier Wen Jiabao promised to get to the heart of what had happened, and in December 2011 the government released an uncommonly blunt report that concluded, “The disastrous crash was caused by serious design flaws in the train control system, inadequate safety procedures implemented by the authorities, and poor emergency response to system failure.” A signaling device had been knocked out of commission when it was struck by lightning, and though such devices commonly have backup systems, the report suggested that the haste to get the rail up and running might have led builders to cut corners.
The government fired 54 Ministry of Railways employees after the investigation, but the top management was already gone. Five months before the crash, Liu Zhijun, the head of the ministry and architect of the massive rail expansion, had been arrested on charges of abuse of power and corruption, accused of pocketing at least $10 million. According to the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos, who has reported extensively on the ministry, Liu’s ambitions were “to bribe his way onto the Party Central Committee and, eventually, the Politburo.”
The scandal that ensued revealed that Liu had also, years earlier, used his influence to secure industry positions for his brother, Liu Zhixiang, who promptly abused his authority. Liu Zhixiang’s role as vice chief of the Wuhan Railway Bureau came to an abrupt stop in 2006, when he was sentenced to death -- a punishment later commuted to 16 years in prison -- for corruption, embezzlement, and murder. He had hired someone to stab to death a contractor who planned to expose him. (Osnos reported, “According to an official legal journal, [the contractor] had predicted in his will: ‘If I am killed, it will have been at the hand of corrupt official Liu Zhixiang.’”)
In July 2013, Liu Zhijun was convicted and given a suspended death sentence. The laudatory recounting of his accomplishments was scrubbed from official histories of the high-speed project, but the flaws in the rail network, both physical and financial, were not so easily erased. Officials later found that $28 million had been embezzled from the Beijing-Shanghai link alone.
The central government tried to show the world that it took widespread corruption seriously. In March 2013, it dissolved the Ministry of Railways and charged the Ministry of Transport, whose portfolio had never included trains, with overseeing the safety and regulation of the railways. The State Railways Administration is now responsible for inspections. And China Railway Corp., which was previously under the purview of the Ministry of Railways, manages the construction of the country’s rail system. But some things didn’t change. China Railway Corp. continued to work with its main engineering contractors, China Railway Group and China Railway Construction Corp. -- both of which are state-owned and ranked by Forbes as among the largest companies in the world.
Artwork by Adam Ferriss; Image: EPA/DIEGO AZUBEL
Defenders of China’s high-speed rail have pointed out that a complex national system that carries 1.3 million passengers a day while having sustained only a few dozen known fatalities in seven years is operating quite safely -- more safely than the world’s aviation industry. But a culture of cutting corners to meet production goals pervades factories and mines as well, and China has the highest number of industrial deaths and accidents in the world. This human cost is one of the hallmarks of Beijing’s insistence on breakneck GDP growth.
Rapid growth has also incurred a high degree of financial risk. China’s formula of “spending money to make money” on infrastructure projects, such as rail, may not balance out if they do not, in the end, make money. “Are they doing high-speed rail because they need it, or are they doing this to meet a GDP target?” asked Ruchir Sharma, the head of emerging markets at Morgan Stanley Investment Management, in an interview with FP. “When a country tries to grow by relying on debt, it always leads to trouble.”
Rely on debt it did. In 2008, after China announced a $586 billion national stimulus package -- over $146 billion of which was directed to rail -- it became clear that the central government would not directly provide most of the money. Instead, it simply signaled to banks that infrastructure projects, which accounted for nearly three-quarters of the stimulus, would be approved. Lending targets were increased and interest rates were decreased, and Chinese banks financed a spurt of construction.
The credit infusion has been largely a family affair, as the Chinese “Big Four” megabanks -- China Construction Bank, Bank of China, Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, and Agricultural Bank of China -- are state enterprises that take in small deposits from millions of households and lend out mountainous sums to fund national and local capital projects. Whether the ventures will ever generate enough revenue to repay the loans has often been a secondary concern to the central government. But that means banks could be left holding a slew of nonperforming loans -- and that is what has happened with rail.
Unique among today’s major world powers, China has the dubious advantage of being able to draw train lines at its pleasure while ignoring free market pressures.Unique among today’s major world powers, China has the dubious advantage of being able to draw train lines at its pleasure while ignoring free market pressures. The World Bank flagged this as a problem in 2009. “The availability and sources of railway finance are major challenges,” it reported, “particularly since many of those proposed rail projects that are driven by regional economic development aims are likely to be not commercially viable, irrespective of their wider economic and social benefits.”
The world’s longest bullet-train line, from Beijing to Guangzhou, is struggling to find its market. The eight-hour ride is not competitive with a three-hour airplane trip, and even the state-run Beijing News told its readers that the slightly cheaper fare just isn’t worth the time. Beneath the shiny exterior of China’s sleek new trains, the economic reality, at least so far, has been bleak.
Things came to a head in 2011, when the Ministry of Railways ran out of money and credit, leaving it unable to make its loan payments or pay its contractors, whom it owed hundreds of millions of dollars. Although the ministry was an arm of the central government, it had been responsible for taking out loans to fund its projects. Work on the railways screeched to a near halt until the central government stepped in, directly paying some of the ministry’s obligations and guaranteeing its debt. This reopened the credit taps temporarily.
The 2013 reorganization of the ministry was supposed to make rail operations more sustainable. But it hasn’t: The same problems are cropping up yet again. Last year, China Railway Group couldn’t service its debt while also paying its thousands of workers. In October 2013, the company reported a debt-to-asset ratio of 85 percent, indicating a high level of financial risk. And the future doesn’t appear to be much brighter-- not unless China Railway Corp., which is also struggling, manages to cough up the hundreds of millions of dollars that it owes the construction company. As if China needed a sign that all is not well, the group’s president, Bai Zhongren, fell out of a window of his fourth-floor apartment. After the news broke -- the company called it an accident, the media called it a suicide -- the stock of the state-owned, but publicly-traded company dropped more than 4 percent.
Some Chinese academics openly criticize high-speed rail as a boondoggle, predicting a debt disaster. “We can’t afford this in China!” said Zhao Jian, a professor of transportation economics at Beijing Jiaotong University, nearly shouting during an interview in his office, a spare room on an upper floor of a Maoist-era tower. “It’s like a $300 million Hollywood movie that nobody sees.”
The problem is not so much that China Railway Corp. could default. Rather, the issue is whether the problems facing high-speed rail are only one manifestation of a massive overinvestment in unneeded infrastructure -- an unsustainable approach whose risk is obscured by the fact that much of the debt is not on China’s balance sheet, but rather on the books of state banks and local governments. Chinese companies had accumulated more than $12 trillion in debt by the end of 2013, according to Standard & Poor’s. The question is how much of that debt is bad -- and how much the central government could be obligated to cover.
Beijing is already tightening credit and introducing market reforms to its banking sector, and many analysts think that the government’s ability to manage any potential defaults along the way is strong. “Behind all this,” said Peter Petri, professor of international finance at Brandeis University, “is an economy with $4 trillion in cash reserves.” In other words, China is not on the cusp of a subprime mortgage-like crisis.
But some analysts are more concerned, pointing to, among other things, China’s sharply increasing debt-to-GDP ratio. The brokerage firm Crédit Lyonnais Securities Asia, historically bullish on China, published a nervous report in May 2013 concluding that “China is addicted to debt to fuel growth” and suggesting that the country would have to go into the economic version of a rehab clinic to get spending under control. The high-speed hangover may loom for years.
Admittedly, not all of rail’s economic benefits can be expressed on a balance sheet. The official argument in favor of high-speed rail’s high-speed rollout is that it has boosted short-term employment -- 2.5 million temporary jobs within 10 years -- while leaving behind a long-term asset. Faster access from the archipelago of factories around Guangzhou, for example, means that containers full of goods can be shipped more quickly to ports. Getting slower passenger trains off the conventional rails opens them up to more freight traffic, where the real money can be made. In manufacturing, a day’s advantage can translate into hundreds of millions of dollars. With improved rail service, China can now ship three times the amount of freight that it did in the 1990s, which means it can exploit coal seams far from urban centers, just as the Qing dynasty had once hoped. And the railways allow workers to commute farther, faster -- increasing labor mobility and economic opportunity.Chinese men walk with their luggage at the Beijing west railway station on Dec. 26, 2012.
Wang Zhao/AFP/Getty Images
Yet it’s not clear that your average worker can actually take advantage of this opportunity. A persistent internal complaint about China’s high-speed rail is that it was built for the rich -- high-income business travelers, like David Su of Global Capital Investments Group -- at the expense of the reliable network of conventional trains the country has operated for more than 100 years. A new piece of slang has cropped up in Beijing: bei gaosu, which means “you have been compelled to take high-speed rail.” This is roughly equivalent to You’re screwed!
One of the greatest tests of high-speed rail for China’s working poor comes during mid-winter’s Lunar New Year, when factory toilers return to their villages for reunion dinners. Over 40 days, Chinese take an estimated 258 million rail trips. But in 2013 few bought bullet train tickets because they can cost three-quarters of the average $100 monthly salary. “Saving time doesn’t matter to me. Saving money does. I think the main concern for every migrant worker is about money,” said hospital janitor Liang Xiuxia in an interview with China Daily, explaining why she was willing to sit on an ordinary train and a bus for 15 hours.
There have been signs that Chinese rail is moving in a more democratic direction, albeit under pressure. After the Wenzhou crash, officials not only slowed trains on the Beijing-Shanghai route to a top speed of 186 mph (from the previous 236 mph), but they also offered cheaper tickets. In 2011, Railways Vice Minister Hu Yadong said that “the satisfaction of the people” would now be “the basic requirement for evaluating railway work.”
Artwork by Adam Ferriss; Image: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images
Despite its many problems, China’s high-speed rail boom has resonated around the world -- even, to some extent, in the United States.
To date, the American experience with high-speed rail has been an expensive disappointment. Amtrak spent $661 million for what it called the Acela between Boston and Washington, but the train’s ungainly design and shared tracks keep its average speed at a poky 75 mph. So in 2009, President Barack Obama guaranteed $8 billion total in matching funds to any states willing to embrace the vision of a 180 mph ride between cities. Over the next two years, Republican governors killed high-speed rail projects in Ohio, Florida, and Wisconsin, leaving California as the largest recipient of the federal largesse. Even there, lawsuits over cost and environmental issues have hampered progress, but Gov. Jerry Brown remains a voluble supporter. He rode the line from Shanghai to Beijing on a tour in April 2013. “People here do stuff,” the governor told reporters, with obvious envy. “They don’t sit around and mope and process and navel-gaze. The rest of the world is moving at Mach speed.”
California’s interest in China is being reciprocated. Another passenger on Brown’s train was Jiang Lay, a designer and engineer for Tangshan Railway Vehicle Co., a China-based locomotive manufacturer. “We are very interested in California,” he told the Los Angeles Times.1 “We are very confident that our Chinese technology can be successful in America.” Manufacturers are already plotting the same joint ventures that first brought traction motors and signals to China. And the California High-Speed Rail Authority has said it may tap sovereign wealth funds -- such as the China Investment Corp., with which talks have already begun -- to defray the $68 billion needed to build a line connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco. This would put big rail debt on two continents, even as the economic benefits are still being sorted out.
Meanwhile, Morocco is planning to lay tracks for a real-life Marrakesh Express to Tangier that will stretch 350 miles. By the end of 2015, Saudi Arabia expects to run its first test of the Haramain High-Speed Railway, designed to whisk pilgrims from Jeddah’s airport to Mecca -- ordinarily an hour’s drive -- in around 30 minutes. Vietnamese officials recently considered a scheme to unite the former warring capitals of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City with a 720-mile track.
China is only too happy to help. Experienced gandy-dancing firms from Beijing and Shanghai are proposing lines in places as disparate as Kenya, Israel, Colombia, Venezuela, Turkey, and Russia in an official sales policy that the central government has termed “Go Abroad.” In Burma, a Chinese firm has partnered with the government to build train-production facilities. If nothing else, China is now the undisputed leader in this sector, or as a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering recently told the reliably nationalistic Global Times,
“High-speed rail is to China what watches are to Switzerland, electric appliances to Japan, and machinery to Germany.”“High-speed rail is to China what watches are to Switzerland, electric appliances to Japan, and machinery to Germany.”
Beijing’s geopolitical ambitions are in play as well. In 2013, the government of Laos agreed to let a Chinese company blast a railway through its hills to connect China’s Yunnan province to Singapore by 2019. There is serious consideration of connecting Germany to a “New Silk Road” of Asia, in which all rapid-transit lines lead to Beijing. China’s leaders now use the phrase “high-speed rail diplomacy.” With tracks that will reach inside other Asian countries, China is creating a whole new economic paradigm -- one that it will control because high-speed rail isn’t usually built to ship cargo. It moves something even more important: people.
With high-speed rail, China will be able to supplant small businesses in neighboring countries, flooding the zone with its own class of mobile merchants. This will build grassroots financial and cultural influence that will quickly translate into political clout. The reshaping of Southeast Asia on a firmament of railroad tracks would give China an enormous advantage in dictating regional trade policy. Militarily, the bullet trains will serve a function understood by every fighting general since Nathan Bedford Forrest: “Git thar fustest with the mostest.” High-speed rail would provide China with almost unbeatable regional power projection in Asia.
Of course, all this assumes the empire of rail can find its way to firmer structural and financial footing. China displayed boldness and grandeur in deciding to wire up its major cities with such a futuristic tool. Now it just has to find a way to make it work.