China, High Speed Rail, and Mobility

Many in the U.S. point to China as an example of why investment in rail transportation makes sense here. Unfortunately, that’s not really the lesson from China we should learn. While it’s true that China’s investment in high-speed rail is making it a world leader in this technology, it’s not true that this is a model that should be emulated by the U.S. or other developed countries.

In fact, China is investing in all forms of transportation to match unprecedented growth in income and the demand for mobility. In the last twenty years, China has built a national expressway network larger than the one that connects the European Union and almost equivalent of the US Interstate Highway System in order to improve access between provinces and metropolitan areas. Also, despite the investment in high speed rail, air travel is expanding rapidly. In 2009, 166 airports were open to civilian transportation. This number is expected to increase to 260 by 2015. So, China’s investment in rail is not necessarily seen only as a substitute for other means of traveling between cities and provinces although it is forcing a restructuring of the travel industry along shorter air routes.

Rather, China transportation network is diversifying, becoming more layered, and taking advantage of the sheer scale of a national economy expected to add 400 million more people to its cities by 2025. High speed rail is best seen as a component of the larger national transportation network, not the backbone of the entire system. Indeed, only about 10 percent of the 91,000 kilometers of intercity rail track are dedicated to high-speed rail. (On this, see this article in the Economist referencing bundling train and rail tickets.) If anything, China is “rightsizing” its transportation network to reflect its burgeoning economy and the extraordinary foot print of its cities, five of which are “megacities” with populations over 10 million (Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Shenzen and Dongguan).

But, China’s investment in conventional and high-speed rail is fundamentally different in another game-changing respect: it represents an investment in mobility. Unlike the U.S., which has an ubiquitous air network that allows even those on modest incomes to fly from New York to Los Angeles, or Chicago to Miami, air travel in China is relatively expensive and still accessible to a minority of travelers. China’s economic development is about the same level as the United States in the 1920s. It’s Gross Domestic Product per person is about 16 percent of the U.S. (even though the size of the total economy is the third largest.) Few people in the US would think about driving, let alone getting on a conventional train, to travel from New York to Los Angeles. But, the Chinese do this all the time simply because there are few options available and their incomes are sufficiently low that they can’t afford the mobility that Americans take for granted.

In nations with low incomes and low mobility, conventional train is often a less expensive and more accessible travel option. A high-speed rail network, supported by conventional rail, connecting major cities makes sense in a nation where mobility between regions is defined by days (not hours) and thousands of miles between major cities and employment centers.

For example, the distance between Beijing and Shanghai is 819 miles. High speed rail will get a traveler between these cities in four hours. While that’s about the same distance as between Chicago and New York City. Driving takes about 14 hours. Flying takes about 90 minutes and can cost about $250 (or even less) roundtrip. $500 can buy a roundtrip plane ticket that will put someone from New York in LA by noon (a 2,700 mile journey), even with a stop in between. $250 is a lot of money in China, but it’s affordable for large swaths of the business and tourist market in wealthy nations like the U.S.

But, Beijing to Shanghai is an easy trip. High speed rail in China is not so much about connecting Shanghai and Beijing as it is about connecting all its major cities. A key goal of the high-speed rail network is to ensure most provincial capitals are within an eight hour travel time to Beijing. China has 120 cities with populations of one million or more, and its cities are expected to add the equivalent of another United States by 2025. The high-speed rail line will also connect to most cities with populations greater than 500,000. Given existing levels of very low mobility and income, rail would be a natural beneficiary of rising travel demand as the travel market matures. The Wuhan-Guangzhou high speed trains will get travelers from these two cities in three hours, less than one third the time it took traveling by conventional train. As an overlay to the existing conventional rail system, 90 percent of the Chinese population will be accessible to rail.

In a culture and economy with a history and legacy of riding trains, the high-speed component is a logical complement to the network. This is fundamentally different from the U.S. where our high degree of wealth and well-developed transportation infrastructure already provides an unprecedented level of mobility and access through highways and air travel.