The China Mystique Breaks Down

At least 35 people killed in a Chinese high-speed rail crash–caused by lightning? This doesn’t make any sense at all. Electric rail technology is more than a hundred years old; how could China’s trains not be safeguarded against this common phenomenon?

Plus, the second train ran into the first train simply because the first train was stopped on the tracks. Hasn’t China heard of positive train control? American railroads, which typically run freight trains at around 45 mph, are required by law to implement PTC by 2015. The Chinese trains in question reach top speeds of 155 mph, and should have had positive train control installed before turning a single wheel.

No doubt Chinese leaders are asking the same questions. They have already fired three top rail officials, and knowing China it wouldn’t be surprising if someone did some jail time. Meanwhile, other bullet trains are carrying so few riders that the government is expected to terminate them. The Antiplanner’s faithful ally, Wendell Cox, reports “that the high price of the high speed rail tickets and the related cutbacks of conventional rail service are fueling huge increases in the private bus industry.”

Just prior to the accident, a libertarian blogger pointed out, “Actually, China is an economic mess” due to its authoritarian government. All the money spent on high-speed rail is just a high-profile example of this, as it represents central planners wasting huge amounts of money (some of it embezzled) building transportation systems only a few can afford to use. Somehow, the Antiplanner doubts President Obama will point to China as a reason why America should build high-speed rail anytime soon.

Some pro-high-speed-rail editorial writers in California admit that China presents “a cautionary tale” for the Golden State. However, they quote the Antiplanner’s loyal opponent, Michael Setty, saying that the costs of California’s line could be cut in half by using existing tracks and following the I-5 right of way. The Antiplanner is dubious.

Meanwhile, back in America, Florida’s own central planners are just admitting to the public that the $1.2 billion they are about to blow on a commuter-train “will likely require millions of dollars a year to make up for operating deficits.” The article says they can raise sales taxes, divert gas taxes, or impose a $2 surcharge to local car rentals. It doesn’t mention the more usual option: cannibalizing the local bus system.

One of the big arguments for building that insanely expensive commuter train was that it would create jobs. University of California transportation expert Marty Wachs responds to this in a recent article in Access magazine. Wachs points out that “transportation investments often redistribute rather than create growth” and that the multipliers usually used by planners are based on generalized models and “could be far off for any particular expenditure.” “Simply equating any transportation investment with jobs and gains for the economy cannot remain a sound basis for public policy,” he concludes.

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16 thoughts on “The China Mystique Breaks Down

  1. metrosucks

    A well-reasoned analysis. Too bad that many in the public and in government allow their personal biases toward wasteful, useless rail projects to prevent them from doing the right thing and opposing the boondoggles. Look at some of the posters on this site.

    Andrew makes a ton of money (according to him), yet wants to government to subsidize him to the tune of billions so he’s not “forced” to own a car. Then he can go around and conduct his business while chortling at the stupidity of the taxpayers who pay for his rides. And of course he’s too high class to ride buses; he’s just too good for buses, you see.

    Highwayman is a nutcase. Enough said.

    Dan is ideologically opposed to the “evil automobile” due to his non-reality based education and his employer.

    However, I find comfort in the reasoning of C. P. Zilliacus, a self-described Democrat who doesn’t chime with the big spenders and thieves currently in vogue in the transit world. I wish there were more Democrats like him.

  2. C. P. Zilliacus

    The Antiplanner wrote:

    Plus, the second train ran into the first train simply because the first train was stopped on the tracks.

    Sadly, the above reminds me of the 2009 fatal crash near Fort Totten in Washington, D.C. on the WMATA Red line.

    Though (supposedly) WMATA had several safety systems in place to prevent such a crash, the National Transportation Safety Board determined that the automatic train control system failed to detect a train standing on the tracks ahead of the striking train, along with poor crashworthiness of some of the cars and “lack of a safety culture.”

    You can read that NTSB report here (warning – large .pdf file) and a smaller summary report here (small, HTML).

  3. C. P. Zilliacus

    metrosucks wrote:

    However, I find comfort in the reasoning of C. P. Zilliacus, a self-described Democrat who doesn’t chime with the big spenders and thieves currently in vogue in the transit world. I wish there were more Democrats like him.

    Thank you for the kind words.

  4. Andrew

    The only mystique about China is how long the bubble can be sustained and what happens when it goes pop.

    Does anyone on this site track stuff like Chinese coal consumption figures? The pace and growth is just astonishing, and it is a furious pace of coal consumption that is driving everything in China by providing energy to run their economy.

    Chinese HSR as I understand it is mainly an attempt to create track space for new coal trains by moving passenger rail travel onto a new system of tracks. China is now consuming about 45% of all coal mined in the world (by comparison, the US consumes about 15%).

    The volumes and logisitics involved in mining, moving, and burning 3.5 times the amount of coal we consume in the US are mindblowing.

  5. LazyReader

    Sad and tragic. High-speed rail is a political firework, visually impressive…..OOOHHHHH……..AAAAHHHHH. As for the commuter rail mentioned above, the means they described to pay for it all involve diverting money from the auto crowd. San Francisco’s BART spends over half a billion a year running, and loses 300 million, fares account for slightly more than a third of it’s revenue and it only accounts for roughly 5 percent of commuter use. But it’s probably consuming nearly half the transportation budget. Meanwhile San Fran is putting electric car chargers everywhere and one business involving electric Smart Cars in a sharing program as if anticipating that cars are here to stay.

  6. Frank

    “China is now consuming about 45% of all coal mined in the world (by comparison, the US consumes about 15%).”

    1.3 billion/0.3billion=4.3 times more people in China than the USnA

    4.3×15%=65%

    China consumes much less coal per capita than the USnA.

  7. Andrew

    Frank:

    China consumes much less coal per capita than the USnA.

    Most of China is still dirt poor rice, wheat, and pig farmers. Just wait!

    The telling stat is Chinese consumption of 3.5+ billion tons of coal per year, vs. US 1 billion tons.

    China is now entering the world market for coal in a big way as its growth continues, where previously it had mostly consumed domestic production. Many proposals are being floated to sell American, Canadian, and Australian coal to China and build new export terminals, etc.

  8. bennett

    “Simply equating any transportation investment with jobs and gains for the economy cannot remain a sound basis for public policy,”

    From what I can tell, private sector job creation is almost always a bogus basis for public policy, be it spending on infrastructure projects, tax breaks, etc.

  9. Tombdragon

    I we were Really Good Capitalists we wouldn’t be whining about not having enough High Speed Rail here, we should be complaining about not selling HSR Technologies to other countries. The secret to our HSR, Light Rail, & Trolley Systems should be our ability to sell our Technology to others, not using it ourselves.

  10. metrosucks

    From what I can tell, private sector job creation is almost always a bogus basis for public policy, be it spending on infrastructure projects, tax breaks, etc.

    True. Though I disagree with the “tax breaks” part in some cases because any money saved from the government is a good thing (usually). Now it depends if you are distinguishing between just a tax break or a subsidy (such as the subsidy the ethanol boondoggle enjoys).

  11. bennett

    Metrosucks,

    I’m not arguing weather or not tax breaks are good or bad. I’m arguing that it’s hard to prove a causal relationship between tax breaks and job creation. On the flip side, it’s hard to prove a causal relationship between tax hikes and job elimination (in fact recent history may suggest otherwise).

    Overall, the governments role in private sector job creation is overestimated, especially by politicians posturing that job creation is their primary goal.

  12. Andrew

    bennett:

    Overall, the governments role in private sector job creation is overestimated, especially by politicians posturing that job creation is their primary goal.

    This can be seen by most recessions being global phenomena experienced by man or all countries nearly simultaneously. Obviously there are wildly different governments with very different fiscal and development policies in the various countries of earth. Yet almost everyone went into recession in 1929-1932, 1948-1949, 1957-1958, 1973-1975, 1979-1982, 1989-1991, and 2007-2009. Why some today point towards globalism and trade and the like causing these phenomena, that would hardly seem relevant in the pre-1970 period when there was relatively little globalism and trade.

    The more likely explanation for most of these global recessions is effects in the interconnected banking system of bank failures and changes in money policies, and shocks to the distribution of key natural resources which have always been traded like wheat, corn, rice, wood, oil, coal, iron, copper, and the like.

    The economy right now is obviously adjusting to both a massive bank crisis and a price shock in almost all key tradable natural resources. People who want to blame such wide-ranging causes on a single politicians or party are going to be sorely disappointed when their guy wins and fails to deliver the goods, since politicians cannot make resources appear for free out of thin air.

  13. sustainovation

    Every day there are 36-45 flights between just the airports of SFO and LAX and that’s not even including the other 30+ commercial Californian airports.

    To put that in perspective there are only 19-20 from LAX to JFK.

    High Speed Rail from SF to LA is expected to take 2 hours and 38 minutes.

    SFO recommends passengers arrive 3 hours before their flight which added to flight time makes the trip 4 hours 25 minutes.

    There’s a market there.

  14. Sandy Teal

    You are right, sustainovation.

    There is a big market there when you consider the time at airports. I think the LA to SF is one of the best markets for high speed rail for those who value their time highly.

    So the value of the time savings should pay for the entire high speed rail. Or else the cost of obtaining rail property and equipment is not worth the time savings for enough people.

    Either way, the free market will figure out which is more efficient. Government funding will just decide which subsidy is most profitable. I don’t care which ends up being more efficient, but I do hope that I don’t subsidize far more rich people to ride faster between SF and LA.

  15. Scott

    There will still be a wait & TSA groping at rail stations.
    Terrorism on rail is easier than in the air.
    What % of all flights at SFO, LAX, SAC & other airports are local?

    HSR, will add trips for some people who would not normally travel a few 100 miles. Also, in addition to people spending money on a subsidized HSR ticket, which would otherwise have mostly gone for a local retail purchase, other consumer spending will be dispersed to other regions.

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