Much has been written of the tragic accident in July 2011 when two Chinese trains collided, killing 40 and injuring almost 200. A recent New Yorker article detailed the incident as an example of shoddy Chinese engineering and political corruption, which it was.
But that incident notwithstanding, in less than a decade China has built the biggest and best HSR network in the world, and it cost only a quarter-trillion dollars. I just had to ride it, and did last month.
Our train from Beijing (population 19 million) to Shanghai (23 million) covered the distance of 819 miles in five hours. That’s an average speed of 164 mph. Even Amtrak’s Acela takes six hours and 40 minutes to sprint from D.C. to Boston, a distance of only 448 miles, or an average speed of less than 70 mph.
Acela carries 300 passengers on one train per hour. The Chinese HSR carries 1,050 passengers per train and offers four to six trains an hour.
Acela rides on improved track on a 100-year-old right-of-way with tracks mounted on ties sitting on rock ballast. The Chinese train rides a dedicated right-of-way with tracks affixed to a cement roadbed, like a highway. The smoothness of the ride was amazing.
This single line between Beijing and Shanghai was estimated to cost $32 billion, and it’s anyone’s guess what the real cost was, given the rampant corruption. But to my Western eyes, it’s amazing what a totalitarian regime can do, unencumbered by environmental impact studies and private property rights. This is truly the best HSR in the world.
While in Shanghai I also rode the world’s only commercial maglev train: not steel wheels on tracks, but a magnetic floating train on a guideway. The line is only 19 miles long, running from the airport to the southern edge of the city. But at full speed of 268 mph (which my run did not achieve), the Shanghai Maglev is the world’s fastest train in regular commercial service … faster even than the Chinese HSR.
Oh, it was fast. But it wasn’t smooth. And running only to the edge of the city and not downtown, it is ridden mostly by tourists and rail fans. The few passengers on our midday run were all in the second-class cars. Why pay for first class on an eight-minute ride?
The builder, Transrapid, pretty much gave away the construction for just $1 billion, to use the Shanghai system as a showcase of the technology. Though a 34-mile extension from the international airport (Pudong) to the domestic airport (Hongqaio) is planned, that’s about all we can expect.
Maglev is interesting, but its incompatibility with existing tracks and the requirement for its own dedicated, unique tracks make the technology unattractive, especially given the advances in conventional railroading.
What can we in the United States learn from China’s great leaps forward in railroading? Not much, aside from what is possible technologically. In this country we have neither the will nor the money to ever build such a railroad.
In transportation, at least, China is the future. The United States is a
Jim Cameron has been a commuter out of Darien for 21 years. He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North/Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You may reach him at [email protected] or trainweb.org/ct. For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see talkingtransportation.blogspot.com.