The Economic Geography of High Speed Rail: China and the U.S.

China’s investment in high-speed rail is making it a world leader in this technology, but it’s not true that this is a model that should, and can, be emulated by the U.S. or other developed countries. One of the most important limits on high-speed rail’s success in the U.S. is the economics of our geography. And here China can provide some important lessons, although not the ones supporters might hope to learn.

A key factor in ensuring the high-speed rail success is the closeness of employment centers, and this represents a fundamental difference between the U.S. and China. The largest Chinese cities aren’t nearly as spread out as U.S. cities in terms of distance and the high-speed rail lines are connecting larger urban cities. High-speed rail lines in China is connecting very large “agglomerations” of urban activity. For example, high-speed rail connects the city of Wuhan 5.3 million with Guangzhou (population 13.2 million) along a 601 mile rail line, a shorter distance than New York to Chicago.

But this underestimates the real connectivity implied in this rail service. A proposed train connecting Beijing in the northeast with Guangzhou in the southeast would travel nearly 1,200 miles. This train would connect a region of 14 million (Beijing) to a combined urbanized area of nearly 100 million (Guangdong province and Hong Kong). Put another way, this one high speed rail line connects cities and provinces in China equal to almost half the U.S. population. The combined population of Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and their neighboring provinces exceeds the national population of the United States. A high speed rail long along the coast of China would in effect link Beijing and Shanghai (with a combined population of nearly 40 million people) to nearly 100 million in the south, while also linking major urbanized port area of such as Hangzhou (5.3 million).

More importantly, for rail services, these huge urban geographies are relatively close together. The distance between Beijing and Guanzhou is 1,600 miles, about half the distance between Los Angeles and New York City (with combined urban populations of 35 million people).

For a little more context, here are the top urbanized areas in China based on population (2010) from standard sources and calculated by Wendell Cox (available at

1. 1. Shanghai (18.4 million)

2. 2. Shenzhen (14.5 million)

3. 3. Beijing (14 million)

4. 4. Guangzhou (13.2 million)

5. 5. Dongguan (10.5 million)

6. 6. Hong Kong (7.0 million)

7. 7. Tianjin (6.6 million)

8. 8. Chengdu (4.8 mllion)

9. 9. Chongqing (5.5 million)

10. 10. Xi’an (4 million)

11. 11. Wuhan (5.3 million)

12. 12. Hangzhou (5.3 million)

What’s interesting about this list is the shear size of the cities in China. Five cities can be classified as “megacities” with populations greater than 10 million. Only two US cities achieve this status: New York (20 million) and Los Angeles (15 million). Chicago doesn’t make the cut.

Moreover, China is expected to add a population equivalent to the current size of the U.S. to its cities over the next 20 years. Thus, Chinese cities are going to get bigger. China has nearly 120 cities with a million or more people, and these cities are going to get larger as another 350 million people move from rural areas to urban areas.

In addition, Chinese cities are relatively close to each other geographically. The approximate distances from Beijing (in the north) to these major cities is:

1. 1. Shanghai (938 miles)

2. 2. Shenzhen (1,612 miles)

3. 3. Guangzhou (1,612 miles)

4. 4. Chengdu (1,361 miles)

5. 5. Chongqing (1,320 miles)

6. 6. Xi’an (756 miles)

7. 7. Wuhan (762 miles)

8. 8. Hangzhou (925 miles)

Notably, these distances are substantially longer than conventional wisdom and rules of thumb used for high speed rail in the U.S., Japan, and Western Europe which claim high-speed rail best serves markets between 150 to 500 miles). But, we need to remember, China is an emerging economy characterized by low (but quickly growing) wealth and low mobility. So, train travel represents substantially improved mobility for the vast majority of Chinese. The Wuhan-Guanzhou high speed train route mentioned above will cut a trip down from 10.5 hours using conventional rail to just three hours with the proposed non-stop service. In an economy without a well developed automobile market, low wealth, and nascent air travel, high speed trains make much more sense given China’s current stage of development.

In contrast, the largest urbanized areas in the U.S. based on population are:

1. New York City-New Jersey (20.6 million)

2. Los Angeles (14.8 million)

3. Chicago (9.8 million)

4. Dallas-Fort Worth (5.6 million)

5. San Francisco (5.5 million)

6. Miami (5.4 million)

7. Philadelphia (5.3 million)

8. Houston (4.9 million)

9. Boston (4.8 million)

10. Atlanta (4.6 million)

and the approximate distances between these cities (based on, plus Washington, DC, and New York City:

1. Los Angeles (2,800 miles)

2. Chicago (800 miles)

3. Dallas (1,550 miles)

4. San Francisco (2,900 miles)

5. Miami (1,300 miles)

6. Philadelphia (92 miles)

7. Houston (1,600 miles)

8. Boston (225 miles)

9. Atlanta (875 miles)

10. Washington, DC (250 miles)

Two observations stand out.

First, the distances between the largest cities in the U.S. are substantially larger compared to China (a point the Atlantic’s Mega McArdle has also pointed out). Our mega cities—New York and LA—are nearly 3,000 miles apart. Shanghai is less than 1,000 miles from Beijing and the southern megacities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen are less than half the distance from New York to LA. Thus, U.S. high speed rail is likely to be corridor oriented rather than national in scope.

Second, the cities that will most likely benefit from high-speed rail: Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, DC are already served by the Acela, Amtrak’s version of high speed trains. With the exception of LA and San Francisco, most of the other cities are more geographically diffused. Thus, high-speed rail will likely be much less successful because of the spread out nature of our cities and the existing superior mobility provided by air travel.

At the end of the day, in the U.S., high-speed rail doesn’t fit our economic geography except in special cases such as the Northeast Corridor linking Boston to Washington, D.C. Comparisons to China’s expanding network ignore fundamental differences between the two nations.