High-speed rail doesn't make sense in China, either

Jiang/Wikimedia Commons

Passengers sleep and sit in interior of high speed rail

Article Highlights

  • My pet peeve is high-speed rail @MichaelBarone

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  • Bargain-minded travelers don't use the Acela express or Amtrak service @MichaelBarone

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  • High-speed rail is an amenity for the business and professional elite; not a form of mass transportation @MichaelBarone

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Faithful readers know that one of my pet issues--pet peeves, really--is high-speed rail, which was the subject of one recent Examiner column and was mentioned in my most recent column Wednesday. Yes, high-speed rail might make sense in some high-density corridors connecting big cities with big downtowns, i.e., the Washington-New York-Boston corridor. But it doesn't make much sense elsewhere. I have pointed out that, with one exception, continent-sized countries like Russia, Canada and Brazil have not contemplated building high-speed rail lines except for those that would connect their two largest metropolitan areas.

"High-speed rail is an amenity for the business and professional elite; it's not a form of mass transportation." -- Michael Barone

The exception, of course, is China, which is lauded by the likes of Thomas Friedman for its supposedly far-sighted program of building a network of high-speed rail lines over most of the country. Now comes Patrick Chovanec, an American who is a professor at Tsinghua University's School of Economics and Management in Beijing, with the news that high-speed rail doesn't make much sense in China either. mess. Key paragraph:

"The problem is that high-speed rail is expensive both to build and to operate, requiring high ticket prices to break even. The bulk of the long-distance passenger traffic, especially during the peak holiday periods, is migrant workers for whom the opportunity cost of time is relatively low. Even if they could afford a high-speed train ticket -- which is doubtful given their limited incomes -- they would probably prefer to conserve their cash and take a slower, cheaper train. If that proves true, the new high-speed lines will only incur losses while providing little or no relief to the existing transportation network."

We already see this phenomenon in the United States, as I mentioned in my Wednesday column. Bargain-minded travelers don't use the Acela express or cheaper Amtrak service from Washington to New York; they ride the somewhat slower but quite comfortable bus lines that are far cheaper. High-speed rail is an amenity for the business and professional elite; it's not a form of mass transportation.

Michael Barone is a Resident Fellow at AEI.

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