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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).