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.