China Debates High-Speed Rail

The China Daily recently had an interesting debate between experts on the usefulness of high-speed rail in meeting China’s transportation needs.

Interestingly, the pro-side was taken by a World Bank transport expert and the con-side was represented by a Chinese professor at the Northern Transport University. Professor ZHAO Jian believes the debt risks and constructions costs are simply too high, and the Ministry of Railways should be focused on transportation strategies that more closely align user revenues with funding transportation investments.

Among Professor ZHAO’s arguements:

“So it is better for new passenger lines to operate at a high-density level and attract a large number of passengers with the high fares charged. These guarantee that passenger attendance is higher than 80 percent. If not, the lines cannot make up for their building and operating costs, let alone repay the principal and interest.

HSR technology originated from and developed in countries with small territories and a high-density of cities and population, such as Japan, France and Germany. HSR passenger volume depends on the economic value of its travel time. However, the economic value of travel time saved in the day and at night is entirely different.

Due to distances of less than 500 km among major cities in small-sized countries, travelers can arrive at their destination by HSR within two hours and the time saved in the daytime has high economic value.

But major cities in China are mainly at distances of more than 1,000 km apart, so high-speed is not an advantage in the long-distance railway passenger market and the overnight trip is more attractive. Spending one night in a couchette not only saves hotel fees, it also frees up the day. The economic value of the travel time saved during the night is not significant.”

The existing HSR lines in China, Prof ZHAO notes, don’t attract the riders necessary to generate revenues to cover the debt incurred for construction and operations.