China High Speed Rail’s Hard Lessons for the US

I’ve weighed in on China’s high-speed rail debacle and what lessons it has for the US in commentary just published by Reason Foundation (February 28, 2012). I wroter a much longer version for National Review (December 19, 2012), but this story has important implications for US policymakers.

One of the critical weaknesses of the China high-speed rail program was the national profile given to it by the national government. The mere size of the program combined with its political profile pushed the program faster than it could keep up while inviting corruption.

As I point out in the Reason commentary:

“China’s enthusiasm for high-speed rail and the national pride it engendered outpaced the ability of its engineers to adapt technology safely and efficiently. China began to adapt technology to the particulars of the Chinese system through joint partnerships with experienced foreign firms in 2004. As glitches became apparent (none of which appeared significant at the time), the government moved the goal posts to achieve even more ambitious objectives, according to extensive investigative reporting by the Chinese business magazine Caixin. Instead of 200 kph trains, the trains were expected to achieve speeds of 250 kph, then 300 kph. Technology never really caught up, a factor compounded by the uniqueness and vastness of the Chinese system.”

China is not retreating from commitment to high-speed rail (it’s system is largely built out at this point), the cost of moving too quickly has been significant in terms of its international prestige as well as the damage to the government’s domestic political credibility. One of the “learnings” from China is fairly simple: Once a program achieves national prominance and becomes part of a broad-based political platform, it’s a good time to step back, reassess, and slow down.