A tip of this Bystander’s hat to David Wolf’s Silicon Hutong analysis of high-speed rail development in China, now the subject of some scrutiny in the wake of the bribery and corruption scandal around sacked railways minister Liu Zhijun. High-speed rail, Wolf argues, is particularly suitable for a country where “the distances between city pairs are too great or too traffic-laden for taxi, bus, or personal automobile, and are too near to justify air travel.” China’s urbanization and development plans will only increase the number of city pairs and city clusters for which high-speed rail connections will be viable.
The danger, Wolf says, is in applying high-speed rail as the answer for all of China’s transportation needs. What critics should focus on is “less Chinese high-speed rail qua high speed rail, but on factors that threaten the success and viability of the system.”
What the government needs is some systemic sobriety to counter the early intoxication with high-speed rail. Because of the fixed, inflexible nature of high-speed rail’s assets (as opposed to, say, those of an airline,) a good start would be creating a framework against which the National Development and Reform Commission can evaluate the economics of a given line over the long term. Clearly the success of the early lines suggest the beginnings of such a template: Beijing to Shenyang, yes, Beijing to Urumqi, probably not.
Railways are simultaneously an economic activity and a public good, which means that a binary choice between them being “profitable” or “social” is the wrong way to look at their cost. That is anyway complex. More rail means less need for roads, less need to expand airports, less need for medical services to treat victims of road accidents, less loss of lifetime economic output from accidental deaths, more efficient energy use, lower carbon emissions, even the civic benefits of people coming together without cars, none of which fits neatly into a one-year budget or even a five-year plan.