Who needs high speed rail?

Scrambling for reasons to feel proud about American backwardness -- while China roars ahead

Published February 24, 2010 12:02AM (EST)

Is the fact that China is stomping all over the United States in the domain of high-speed rail something for Americans to be proud of??

That's the provocative thesis put forth by Bruce Watson in DailyFinance.com.

China, writes Watson, can speedily upgrade its transportation infrastructure with trains that zip across the country at speeds of over 200 miles per hour because it isn't constrained by citizens whining about their property rights or the high wages of American workers. With an authoritarian government and unlimited access to cheap labor, China can lay down as much track as it wants and even write the whole thing off as a giant Keynesian stimulus project.

As America's high-speed rail projects get ponderously under way, critics will inevitably point to the various delays and perceived shortcomings as evidence that the U.S. is on the skids, that it is being overtaken by China, or that it lacks sufficient political will. Yet these failings reflect a political system that is more responsive to its people, more concerned with individual rights and more developed than China's. In other words, while America's political and economic system may be less efficient than China's, it is also more mature -- and more preferable.

I like a good contrarian argument as much any blogger, but I'm not entirely convinced that China's ability to massively upgrade its transportation infrastructure and put hundreds of thousands of people to work while cutting the travel time between Beijing and Shanghai from 14 hours to 5 is something that should necessarily make Americans feel better about themselves. I'm also wondering about Watson's assertion that one reason why high-speed rail is a harder sell in the U.S. is because "it has to compete with airplanes and cars. Lacking the speed of planes and the convenience of automobiles, high-speed rail's selling point will have to be ticket price."

But in China, the new trains are so fast that their deployment is forcing Chinese airlines to cut fares.

BusinessWeek reports:

China Southern Airlines Co., the nation's largest carrier, and Air China Ltd. are slashing prices to compete with the country's new high-speed trains in a battle that Europe's airlines have largely already ceded.

Competition from trains that can travel at 350 kilometers per hour (217 miles per hour) is forcing the carriers to cut prices as much as 80 percent at a time when they are already in a round of mergers to lower costs....

China Southern cut economy-class tickets to 140 yuan ($21) from 700 yuan on flights between Guangzhou and Changsha after a high-speed train started on the route in December. The trip now takes 2 1/2 hours by train instead of 9.

"The high-speed train is invincible on this route," said Tom Lin, 30, a civil servant in Guangzhou, who opted to travel by rail. "There's no doubt it's more convenient for trips to the cities along the line. Airlines can't compete with trains for the spacious seats."

If I could get from the San Francisco Bay Area to Los Angeles in two or three hours by train I'd buy a ticket without thinking twice. Just for the pleasure of not having to take off my shoes and belt to get through security alone!

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

MORE FROM Andrew Leonard

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

China High Speed Rail How The World Works