More on China’s High-Speed Rail

An American blogger in China makes some interesting points about China’s rail system. The country’s existing rail network is currently being used to capacity by freight (mainly coal) and conventional passenger trains. In fact, the number of passenger trains has pushed a lot of coal traffic onto trucks and highways.

The high-speed rail network was supposed to get passengers off the conventional rails, in turn allowing freight trains to get coal and other freight off the highways. But the high-speed rail fares are so high that ridership is low and the vast majority of rail riders are sticking to the conventional trains. The result is a surplus of passenger capacity without alleviating the shortage of freight capacity.

This is entirely predictable, especially given the experience in Japan. As in China, Japan built its high-speed rail network to directly compete with existing low-speed trains. The best available data indicate that the average resident of Japan rides conventional intercity trains an average of more than 1,000 miles a year, while they ride high-speed trains only about 400 miles a year. Meanwhile, less than 5 percent of Japanese freight goes by rail, while 60 percent goes by truck.

In contrast, France replaced conventional trains with high-speed trains, subsidizing the trains enough to supposedly keep them affordable. Despite the lack of competition, the latest data suggest that the average resident of France rides high-speed trains only about 450 miles a year. That’s more than they ride low-speed trains, but the French also drive twice as many miles per year (per capita) as the Japanese.

Highways and airports share their infrastructure with both freight and passengers, keeping the costs of both low. The railroads long ago realized that passenger trains were far more labor-intensive than freight, so (particularly since deregulation) they make freight pay its way–but they aren’t averse to moving passenger trains if someone else is subsidizing them. For the most part, however, America has the best rail system in the world because it has dedicated most of the lines to freight, where it has a huge competitive advantage over highways, instead of passengers, where its competitive advantage is nil.

The real loser is trying to dedicate rail infrastructure solely to passengers. The costs are too high and the revenues too low for it to make sense, whether they are in the United States or China.


9 thoughts on “More on China’s High-Speed Rail

  1. metrosucks

    You’ll make all the libtards cry, Randall! Then they will have to plug their ears with EIS printouts and cry out “can’t hear you, choo! choo! choo!“.

  2. Borealis

    The linked article made the following recommendation:

    Rather than moving people more quickly, [China] should build a rail system that moves goods and makes people more productive where they already are.

    It wasn’t until after reading “The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger” that I realized how much a freight system can change a country. It is a fascinating story about how shipping containers not only changed the port cities, but also most interior cities and towns too.

  3. bennett


    I too liked “The Box.” It was very insightful for someone that knows little about freight systems (although I have to admit I didn’t read the whole thing). It’s amazing to me how a simple steel box can do, and mean, so much.

    If you want something that looks at similar systems but at a different scale, check out “Natures Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West” by Cronon. It’s a great examination of how cities operate and the idea of “nature”.

  4. Borealis

    Yeah, “The Box” got boring toward the end. But it did make a compelling case about how transportation costs make a huge difference in how a country is developed.

    I haven’t read “Natures Metropolis”, but I am an admirer of William Cronon. The Antiplanner might want to read and comment on his broader scale writings.

  5. C. P. Zilliacus

    The Antiplanner wrote:

    The real loser is trying to dedicate rail infrastructure solely to passengers. The costs are too high and the revenues too low for it to make sense, whether they are in the United States or China.

    The above words should be chiseled into some sort of impervious material (steel, cast iron, granite) in large characters and placed before any and all group or groups of elected officials considering rail projects to transport passengers.

  6. Scott

    Here’s a recent article on excessive gov spending with little value, about the HSR (& MSR):

    Some good analytical comments there too, especially better than the mostly lefty, big-gov types here.

    What does it take to understand that new rail is not worth it?
    the benefits claimed are exaggerated or non-existent
    little ridership need or value
    too costly
    displaces money from more useful options.

  7. Scott

    If a Cox article is “little value”, you should supposedly be able to deconstruct it.
    These ad hominems & other fallacies to kinda convince other lefties & other uneducated, but you never provide any backing for your whatever you’re trying to say.

    You have again shown your lack of knowledge in how markets works & laissez faire.

    BTW, markets (think of exchange) exist regardless of gov intervention. Many get mixed up with the “freeness” in markets. What you & others are trying to do is go against natural human forces.

    Do you disagree some physics principles? Economics is not as static, but the are certain things that happen, over time.

    Even the likes of Robert & Paul Krugman, will agree with Henry Hazlitt & Ludwig von Mises on 70%+ of econ. The more lefty outlook tries to use gov coercion for behavior modification & other goals.

    Turning scarce resources into more valuable, productive uses.
    That’s what the private sector does. Some of the first items [in history] were tools (ie sticks & rocks), made from surrounding materials. The homo sapiens traded those, along with gathered food. That’s a market.

    For manufacturing & other businesses, capital ($) is needed, raised by choice & the business goods & services are bought by choice. Gov takes, by force (or potential).

    Gov distorts markets in so many ways, often under the guise of social good.

    The mention of native Americans has no place in this discussion. It shows how you reach for crap, since you nothing solid.

  8. the highwayman

    Yes the market is distorted Scott, you take advantage of public property every day through some thing called a street, as well as cross subsidized parking through building code mandates.

    You, Cox & O’Toole need to eat some very large pieces of humble pie!

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