Obama, China, and the Sputnik Moment

You can't compare China and the U.S. when it comes to high-speed rail

(Page 2 of 2)

China has 120 cities with populations of one million or more, and its cities are expected to add the equivalent of another United States—300 million people—by 2025. The high-speed rail line will connect to most cities with populations greater than 500,000. Given existing levels of very low mobility and income, rail would be a natural beneficiary of rising travel demand as the travel market matures.

For example, high-speed rail connects the city of Wuhan (population 5.3 million) with Guangzhou (population 13.2 million) along a 601 mile rail line, a shorter distance than New York to Chicago. The Wuhan-Guangzhou high-speed trains, averaging 194 miles per hour, will get travelers from these two cities in three hours, less than one-third the time it took traveling by conventional train. As an overlay to the existing conventional rail system, 90 percent of the Chinese population will be accessible to rail.

But this underestimates the real connectivity implied in this rail service. Even the shorter high-speed rail links are connecting major clusters of urban activity. A proposed train connecting Beijing in the northeast with Guangzhou in the southeast would travel nearly 1,200 miles. This single train line 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 entire U.S. population. The combined population of Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and their neighboring provinces exceeds the national population of the United States.

Finally, China is at a very different point in its economic development than the U.S. and other Western nations. The U.S. no longer has either a culture of rail travel or a network of rail lines that knit its regions together. More importantly, creating this network is highly unlikely to make much of a dent in transportation mode splits.

The reason is fairly straightforward: higher incomes allow everyday American travelers to choose travel modes that maximize flexibility and speed. Rail is a fixed route transit system, less flexible and slow compared to the more ubiquitous air travel. As major airlines have exponentially increased connectivity with cities of all sizes and locations, competition has also reduced the relative cost of air travel to the point most households can get to their long-distance destinations faster and cheaper via air (or intercity bus).

In 2008, U.S. airplanes logged 583 billion passenger miles. The entire Amtrak system accounted for just 6 billion passenger miles. Even if high-speed rail were to double the number of riders, its market share would be paltry compared to air travel. Thus, the prospects for high-speed rail to compete effectively for a meaningful level of travelers in the U.S., unlike China, is fundamentally limited, a conclusion implied in the massive ongoing subsidies required to simply keep the U.S. train systems operating once they are built.

With nearly 10,000 miles of high-speed rail track ready to open by 2015, China boasts the world’s fastest passenger trains, reaching speeds of 220 miles per hour. Chinese companies are competing to provide similar services in the U.S. as some rail proponents look on with envy.

Nevertheless, it’s important for policymakers to carefully consider these commitments in a Chinese context and ask how these circumstances may differ from the United States. Our geography, transportation infrastructure legacy, and economic history undermine the factors that are likely to make high-speed rail a success in America.

Sam Staley is the Robert W. Galvin Fellow and director of urban growth and land use policy at Reason Foundation. He is co-author of the book Mobility First: A New Vision for Transportation in a Globally Competitive 21st Century (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008).

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  • ||

    We have met Sputnik, and he is us.

    p.s. the Future is Yesterday!

  • Lay Jeno||

    Teh kids think "Sputnik" is Snooki's older sister.

  • Brett L||

    Actually, he used to be the Motorcycle Riders' Association lobbyist at the Texas State Capitol. Cool guy. Not sure if he's still there.

  • Cyto||

    I thought he was former Atlanta Hawks guard and NBA slam dunk champion Anthony "Spud" Webb. Spud was somehow short for sputnik - his grandmother noted that his head looked like sputnik when he was a small child and the name stuck.

    This useless fact brought to you by the coalition to promote useless facts.

  • Neu Mejican||

    If this is an argument against investment in our rail system, it is a pretty tangential one. We may have a mature transportation system, but the point is that it is outdated and needs an upgrade...and rail is one of the areas most in need of attention.

  • ||

    Rail is awesome...for transporting dead things.

  • Brett L||

    We'd use it a lot less if it was legal to ship things over water from one US destination to another without trans-shipping in a foreign port. Thank your local Teamster for that law.

  • Cyto||

    This doesn't get enough attention. There are effects on the cruise industry as well.

  • ||

    Other than the part where we don't fucking need it, which means insane subsidies for life, sure.

  • sevo||

    "the point is that it is outdated and needs an upgrade...and rail is one of the areas most in need of attention."
    We'll let UP, CNX and BNSF deal with that problem.

  • ||

    I agree.

  • scrat||

    Since WWII made it clear that rockets could be used as weapons, Sputnik represented a serious threat to national defense.

    I can't see how high-speed rail in Chian represents a means to deliver a weapon of mass destruction to US shores.

  • ||

    Good point. Also the argument that sputnik lead to Appollo is a problem because Appollo spent billions of dollars to put 12 men on the moon then it was cancelled. Currently the private space industry can not ecconomically put a man in orbit. in many ways the space industry has not advanced much since the 1960's and Appollo was a dead end.

  • scrat||

    Inmarst, Iridium, DirecTV, Dish, GPS, Glonnass, Gallileo, Egnos, Compass, etc, etc, etc, etc

    There is no business case yet for putting people on the Moon, but that will probably change in the not so distant future.

  • Old Salt||

    It's not a question of policy but of philosophy, because for some odd ball fucking reason, lefties romanticize high speed rail right along with solar power and a bunch of other bullshit that only makes sense in the little utopia dictatorship that exists in their heads!

    At least solar power can make my calculator work and has never killed anyone because, lets face it, once AmTrack gets a hold of a high speed anything, it probably won't work and as soon as it gets fixed it will jump the fucking tracks straight into a daycare (which used to serve the black neighborhood that got eminent domained for this liberal bukkake fest)!

    Oh, and "no pat downs"? That's bullshit because I've read off and on about how the TSA has been trying to get Grey Hound and AmTrack to play by the same rules as the airlines! Just a matter of time until the TSA Gestapo is grabbing hobo balls because they live in the dumpster behind the bus or train station!

  • ||

    Thank you, Old Salt. Moar, moar I say!

  • Mike M.||

    This. The idea that America is going to "Win the Future" with windmills, solar shingles, and high speed trains is so utterly ludicrous, it's hard to know whether to laugh or cry.

    What Obama and the dumbass democrats know but won't tell anyone is that Spain has been trying this garbage for years now, and it has been an absolute dismal failure; they have maybe the highest real unemployment in the industrialized world.

  • ||

    Not just Spain but other European nations as well.

  • ||

    "Win the Future" ("WTF")

  • sevo||

    "Win the Future" ("WTF")

    That's GREAT! The guy isn't even capable of stringing words together to make an acronym.
    Even that bozo Ford got "Whip Inflation Now" into something that fit on a button.

  • Raven Nation||

    Bwahahahaha - not exactly what I meant! But funny b/c it could NEVER happen.

  • Raven Nation||

    OK, that's embarassing. This was meant to be a reply to your reply further down. Sheeze - sorry.

  • ||

    Have you ever grabbed any hobo balls, Old Salt? If not, maybe you need to just lay off other people's hobbies and interests.

  • Number 2||

    You might also add, Old Salt, that the lefties despised the railroads when they were privately held, profitable entities, just like they hate oil companies and "Big Pharma" today.

  • ||

    Precisely. They're trying to build a high speed rail between LA and SF. But why would I take it? I can take a dozen different flight each day between SF, San Jose, Burbank, LAX and Orange, some as low at $39. The flight will be faster than rail. And if I want to go to Reno or Las Vegas instead, no problem.

    And the "high speed rail" they're trying to build really isn't high speed. It will be stopping on multiple points along the way. Imagine flying from SF to LA and having to stop in SJ, Fresno, Bakersfield, and Glendale first. (There will probably be many more stops, because every politician along the way will want his own station to showcase). The tracks won't be good enough for Japanese-style bullets.

    If high speed rail were cost effective it would be there already. The only reason governments have to build them is because everyone else knows it won't make any money. But the guvment don't care because it takes money instead of earning it.

  • ||

    Oh, and despite Obama's naive optimism, you will get groped by TSA before you get on that train.

  • ||

    And trains have already been bombed by terroists including the London Tube and passenger trains in Spain. Worse yet trains can be rerailed so you need to not only guard the train but hundreads of miles of track.

  • Raven Nation||

    But it is entirely posible that the government - either intentionally or not - will render air travel un-economical or impractical. That will make "high-speed rail" the big player.

  • sevo||

    "But it is entirely posible that the government - either intentionally or not - will render air travel un-economical or impractical."

    I could see this: Guys with guns at the airport saying "get into the bus; you're going to the train station!"

  • ||

    What we need more of is useful scientific and technological innovations. Best way to get those is to create a system that maximizes rewards for useful innovations. Like something I call the "free market."

  • Sovereign Immunity||

    I would like to know more!

  • Jerry||

    The Sputnik Moment is when you realize you have to rely upon ex-Nazis like Wernher von Braun in order to innovate and get a moon mission going.

  • ||

    This is relevant to my interests.

  • Planet Moron||

    If we're going to invest in anything, I think it should be high-speed ale.

  • ||

    I'll drink to that!

  • QuietDesperation||

    God what boring shit the government comes up with.

    Just put me in charge. A fleet of orbital battlestars bristling with kinetic energy weapons would be my legacy. I'd call it the "Eyes Of Allah" just to tweak the miserable fundies. The tech we develop there would go for space hotels and factories.

  • ||

    I want to be the Flying Czar of Flying Cars. You'll appoint me, won't you? I'll fly the hell outta flying cars.

    Next on the agenda: Space Hookers.

  • Sovereign Immunity||

    Will there be space hookers and glass elevators?

  • CommentARRRR||

    This article reads like a "don't kill our poor, struggling airline industry" more than a "don't subsidize rail" argument.

    For example, did you really say: "Rail is a fixed route transit system, less flexible and slow compared to the more ubiquitous air travel."

    Is that supposed to be a joke? Because it is hilarious. Air travel may be well entrenched but let's not pretend it's "convenience" is favorable to the passenger in most situations. You are still heavily reliant on a mostly rigid flight system.

    I can agree with not using federal money to push high speed rail, but acting like high speed rail is irrelevant and not worth development smacks of trying to protect the airline industry while it continues to lag in innovation. High speed rail is certainly worth trying out as an avenue for furthering transportation innovation and growth in the US.

  • sevo||

    "For example, did you really say: "Rail is a fixed route transit system, less flexible and slow compared to the more ubiquitous air travel."
    Is that supposed to be a joke? Because it is hilarious. Air travel may be well entrenched but let's not pretend it's "convenience" is favorable to the passenger in most situations. You are still heavily reliant on a mostly rigid flight system."
    Yep, when one airplane falls off the track, why the others all stop behind it, right?

    "High speed rail is certainly worth trying out as an avenue for furthering transportation innovation and growth in the US."
    Fine. start a company and see how many investors flock to your new transport system.

  • Raven Nation||

    I was at a local development meeting a few years back & there was a guy there promoting the need for streetcars in our city with an emphasis on how the government should fund this.

    In my then ignorance I asked him, "This sounds like a good idea; why don't you draw up a business plan and get a loan to get it started?"

    He informed me that streetcars never made money and the only way you could get them to work was for the government to pay for them.

    I was never sure which part of that answer deserved the most pity.

  • ||

    How will high-speed rail promote innovation? Robotic trains? Faster TSA screening centers?

    The innovations which emerged with lunar travel and satellite technology had some pretty obvious commercial and military applications. These had value.

    High-speed rail is vaporware.

  • Fatty Bolger||

    The inconvenience in flying is almost entirely a result of drastic security measures, and those security measures will be applied equally to high speed rail. You can count on that.

  • sevo||

    “China is building faster trains and newer airports,” the president said. “Meanwhile, when our own engineers graded our nation's infrastructure, they gave us a ‘D.’”

    I see he's never been outside the "guided tour" in China.

  • The Truth||

    Have you ever been to China at all?

  • sevo||

    "Have you ever been to China at all?"
    Not that it's any of your business, but yes. And not on the "guided tour"; their infrastructure stinks, except for the show-pieces.

  • ||

    Same experiences I had when I was in Cuba. Dumbass liberals sing the praises of Cuban socialism yet they wouldn't tolerate one damn thing about how the system works there. Roads suck, nothing is new, rationining of food and medicine, and a bunch of other little "nuisances" a Westerner with any dignity wouldn't accept.

    Other than that the people are gold, music amazing and island beautiful.

    Alas, that's just my take.

  • ||

    “Meanwhile, when our own engineers graded our nation's infrastructure, they gave us a ‘D.’”

    Was that before or after we dropped a cool $700BB on shovel-ready infrastructure projects?

  • Fatty Bolger||

    Exactly! Sorry Obama, but you already got your near trillion dollar infrastructure boondoggle. The fact that you spent it on a bunch of crap doesn't mean that we should give you another shot at it.

  • ||

    +1

  • Mike||

    Seriously! I would think you could build some pretty f'ing awesome train tracks for $700 Billion. When I go to the mall to spend money just to spend money, at least I get an iPod out of it.

  • Highway||

    I like the idea that because our infrastructure gets an arbitrary "D" rating, we should spend a whole bunch of money on a whole lot of NEW things, so that they can break down and turn to crap and get a "D" rating. The reason we get a "D" now is because maintenance is not splashy or sexy, but it is expensive. Try maintaining the stuff we have now, then we'd get a better grade.

  • Fatty Bolger||

    The "crumbling infrastructure" meme is a fantasy lefties use to justify more government spending. However, if we keep frittering away our borrowed money on trifles and continue to artificially hamper the economy, it will become a reality soon enough.

  • Highway||

    Well, it's not so much that it's crumbling infrastructure. There are definitely maintenance requirements on roads and bridges, and frequently they don't get maintained (have done inspection on plenty of bridges that need remediation). But it's not fun, cool, or showy to open a new 2 lane bridge over a little creek. So those projects need to compete with the new capital projects for the same funding.

  • sevo||

    Imagine:
    "Congressman Porkbutt Inspection"
    Or:
    "Congressman Porkbutt Bridge"
    Tell us, Porkbutt, where are you going to spend the money?

  • Alan Vanneman||

    "You can't compare China and the U.S. when it comes to high-speed rail"

    You can if you're stupid.

  • Booger||

    The biggest problems with highspeed rail will be cost and eminent domain. Land rights are a cornerstone of the liberty in the US. Capturing all the land needed for this simply will not happen without extensive litigation. Laying out a rail system in a convenient and useful manner will be impossible. Too many individuals and corporations will be able to lobby Congress to prevent a sensible layout. "Not in my backyard" syndrome will prevail....and rightfully so. If I found that my family's farm land in Kansas would have a rail running through it, I know it would be upsetting. Its not just a small strip as wide as a rail line either. It requires easements, access, etc.

    Lastly, the cost will be astronomical. I could run on and on over this one. Unions labor rates will create such a cost prohibitive pricing model for the construction that it simply cannot be affordable.

  • ||

    Calm down, Booger. If CA shows us anything, its that high speed rail isn't something to be built, its something to be studied.

    At great expense.

    By politically connected firms.

    Forever and ever, amen.

  • tea partier||

    Astute observation my man +1000.

  • The Truth||

    God, this country is an international laughingstock. Our airports are crumbling, are bridges fall down, our cities are crime-ridden and uninhabitable, our schools are failing and our prisons are full, our army is overextended chasing phantom terrorists in caves.

    And everyone on this board says "don't worry, be happy!"

  • ||

    Who said "Don't worry, be happy"?
    I want names.

  • ||

    Violent crime rates have been dropping for 25 years, airports are not crumbling, and every single other problem you listed would be solved or at least greatly reduced through solutions proposed on this very website. Legalize drugs, cut government spending, end the wars, and expand school choices and our country can again be the greatest on earth. Just stop listening to Democrats and Republicans.

  • The Truth||

    You all might want to read this article before sticking your heads in the sand about the real "state of our Union":

    http://www.foreignpolicy.com/a.....e?page=0,0

  • ||

    And everyone on this board says "don't worry, be happy!"

    New here, Truth?

  • The Truth||

    The country is in decline and will be surpassed by China and nobody here can admit it.

  • sevo||

    The Truth|1.27.11 @ 1:55PM|#
    "The country is in decline and will be surpassed by China..."

    Yep, the Chinese are going to have unicorns 'way before we do.
    Uh, anything other than fantasy to support you claims?
    In what way is China gonna "surpass" us? More stupid government projects?

  • The Truth||

    They'll be the worlds biggest economy by 2019 at the earliest even in nominal terms, probably far before that in PPP terms, they already have the highest school test scores, the fastest supercomputer, the world chess champion, the most advanced solar and wind power industry, the biggest car market in the world, they will become the biggest manufacturer in the world some time this year, should I go on?

  • sevo||

    "should I go on?"
    No, you should stop lying now.
    China is going to overtake the US economy right after, oh, Egypt:
    http://www.indexmundi.com/g/r.aspx?c=mr&v=67
    Oh, and that 'advanced solar' bullshit; why we have more staamp collectors!

  • The Truth||

    Gross GDP, not per Capita, is what gives a nation international power and influence (and war-making capability).

    And Egypt doesn't have 1.8 billion people.

  • sevo||

    The Truth|1.27.11 @ 2:38PM|#
    "Gross GDP, not per Capita, is what gives a nation international power and influence (and war-making capability)."

    Bull.............
    shit.

  • The Truth||

    So Qatar and Liechtenstein are world powers then? More than the US? LOL!

  • sevo||

    Uh, the EU has a higher gross GDP; the EU is more powerful than the US?
    Stick your LOL up your adolescent butt.

  • The Truth||

    The EU isn't a nation-state (yet).

  • The Truth||

    But do tell us about the great Norwegian Superpower.

  • The Truth||

    Plus you need to read this article:

    http://www.foreignpolicy.com/a.....e?page=0,0

    Until then STFU.

  • sevo||

    No, you need to see if you can find a partner for your one brain-cell.

  • The Truth||

    Scared to read it?

  • sevo||

    No, I'm not 'scared to read it'; alarmist bullshit is tiresome.
    Afraid to think?

  • The Truth||

    Bullshit, you just know you can't refute it. Pussy.

  • sevo||

    Look, I'm sorry, but dealing with 13-year-olds just shows I don't suffer stupid assholes well.
    Go away.

  • ||

    The US economy is 3 times the size of the Chinese economy and China has 3 times the population .4 Billion vs 1.2 billion. The Chinese will overtake the US economy if they continue to liberalize their economy and implement democratic reforms, but for as far as they have come they have a long way yet. China has to have an economy 3 times that of the US to have the same standard of living and even if China becomes the worlds largest economy it dosen't mena the US has declined, only that China has caught up. The US still needs to move forward, Europe still needs to move forward and they need to do this through economic liberty as with liberty in all aspects of life. If the US economy grows and China and India surpase the US economy in GDP but not PPP it will mean the world is a richer and better place.

  • sevo||

    China also has very serious structural problems.
    To mention just one, capital is still distributed for political purposes. The USSR gained tons in the '30s as a result of a similar system, and if you think that's the ticket to really 'catch up, why a serious discussion with Gorbachev might change your mind.

  • ||

    Notice I said China needs to further librealize its economy. That is exactly the problem China still has a primarily socialist economy and much of the country is still in poverty.

  • ChrisO||

    The future rarely turns out exactly the way we expect it too. "If present trends continue" is a pretty serious qualifier.

    Whatever China is or will be, it is not an excuse for more pork-barrel spending.

  • ||

    Why are Americans using China as a yardstick? China this, China that. I betcha behind the scenes they envy and admire America.

    Set your own standards.

  • Chinny Chin Chin||

    Pols really ought to reconsider the "Sputnik Moment" thing. We now know that, at the launch of Sputnik, the Sovs had no other R7s ready for launch, and no weapon system ready for the R7.

    Sputnik was a shiny, beeping paper tiger which caused the US to soil it's collective pants. Today we know it was as valid a reason for national action as Saddam's non-existant WMDs.

  • Sputnik crashed in a ditch||

    And Obama cannot get it out.

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  • Parker1227||

    They want to put us all in bee-hive high rises at railroad junctions and bulldoze suburbia.

    "Grandma, tell me what it was like, again, to have your own house and your own piece of property."

  • FutureofUSChinaTrade||

    True that China’s circumstances are different and where high-speed rail may make sense in some parts of China, that doesn’t mean it makes sense in all parts of the U.S. And, true that the U.S. is still far ahead of China on most development measures. But if the U.S. sits still and China keeps forging ahead, the conclusion is inevitable: America gets left behind.

    As former trade negotiator Clyde Prestowitz writes at FutureofUSChinatTrade.com: “America competing means the U.S. focuses on maintaining a high standard of living and opportunity, ensuring a wealth-producing base to maintain the American way of life (which means, in part, high-quality infrastructure and education). It means a social and economic environment within which people can realize that quintessential American dream: that by working hard, they can achieve success.”

    http://futureofuschinatrade.co.....prosperity

  • CSI||

    I'm not going to be a peak-oil doomer predicting the imminent collapse of world civilization. Thats not going to happen. But the cheap energy and other resources which our perpetual motion economic growth machine relies on are running out fast. It could be economic growth as we understand it will gradually slow down and down til its no more than a crawl.

  • ||

    The next big thing in U.S. transportation will be cars that drive themselves. They'll be faster than high-speed rail, go everywhere the roads go, and will save huge chunks of time that people spend chauffeuring themselves around now. That's in addition to the lives and injuries saved because the automatic cars won't regularly crash into each other, as people-driven cars do now.

    These cars won't come because the government throws money at them; they'll come when engineers figure out how to build them.

  • Ethan||

    The author's point is fantastically hard to grasp. Case in point:
    “Nevertheless, it’s important for policymakers to carefully consider these commitments in a Chinese context and ask how these circumstances may differ from the United States. Our geography, transportation infrastructure legacy, and economic history undermine the factors that are likely to make high-speed rail a success in America.”

    So it he saying high-speed rail would, or wouldn’t, be a success in America? A few paragraphs up, he supports the negative with this:

    “In 2008, U.S. airplanes logged 583 billion passenger miles. The entire Amtrak system accounted for just 6 billion passenger miles. Even if high-speed rail were to double the number of riders, its market share would be paltry compared to air travel. Thus, the prospects for high-speed rail to compete effectively for a meaningful level of travelers in the U.S., unlike China, is fundamentally limited…”

    Of course an outdated, limited-scope, high-priced and monopolistic rail network is going to have a “paltry” market share, but one needs to have a pretty limited imagination (or, a specific agenda; I notice the author wrote a book advocating his own fix for U.S. transportation) to assume that an expansion in rail network that Obama proposed in his State of the Union – and his proposal was not just high-speed rail, mind you – will necessarily be equivalent to “Amtrak redux.”

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