What Do Problems For China's High Speed Rail Mean for the U.S.?

The tragedy last month that saw 40 people killed aboard a Chinese high-speed train has been used in the United States as fodder to attack the very idea of investing in passenger rail.

"[S]o much for the grand project ... that President Obama held up as a model for the United States," said Charles Lane recently, writing in the Washington Post.

This kind of logic doesn't hold up. For one thing, the death count pales in comparison to the tens of thousands of Americans killed in automobile accidents - nearly 35,000 every year, the equivalent of a full Boeing 737 crashing every single weekday.

Still, in an emotional way it's easy to see how such a high-profile disaster can discredit the vaunted Chinese high-speed rail project. It was just in January that President Barack Obama did indeed look, with few qualifications, to China as a model, comparing China's clear progress in high-speed rail - 5,000 miles already constructed, with speeds regularly exceeding 200 mph - with the space race with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

"Our infrastructure used to be the best - but our lead has slipped," said Obama in his 2011 State of the Union Address. "China is building faster trains.... This is our generation's Sputnik moment. At stake is whether new jobs and industries take root in this country or somewhere else."

Even before the fatal crash, some of the shine was already wearing off of China's vaunted rail system. Last February, Chinese Minister of Railways Liu Zhijun, who had presided over the high-speed rail building boom, was abruptly dismissed from office after charges of rampant corruption.

Now anxiety is mounting over how the Ministry will pay the debts it has incurred, and reports began to emerge last spring that the breakneck pace of construction was only possible because workers cut corners and compromised safety. Such concerns ultimately led the Ministry of Railways to reduce the maximum speed of trains from 217 to 186 mph, but that did not prevent the collision in Zhejiang.

So, do China's recent problems suggest that the United States should quit pursuing high-speed rail? Not at all. Recent events should rightfully dampen the exuberance that led China to ignore safety considerations. Yet, American observers would be wrong to dismiss high-speed rail as a powerful driver for the future of the United States. High-speed rail still makes sense for Americans, for reasons that China's experience will likely reinforce.

While China may have overshot in attempting to build too much too quickly, there is good reason to believe that the Chinese investment in passenger rail is ultimately still a valuable and beneficial project.

That's the view of investment bank Morgan Stanley: their research arm published a May 15th report, China High Speed Rail: On the Economic Fast Track, which found that "[h]igh-speed rail is key to China's balanced, sustainable double-digit growth." The authors concluded that despite setbacks, China's buildout will boost the nation's economy and standards of living by "improving market access, encouraging population mobility, and enhancing logistics efficiency ... which in turn will stimulate innovation and creativity and lead to the creation of new businesses in the long-term."

We here in the United States have made critical infrastructure investments of this scale before: between 1950 and 2000, as the country grew by 130 million people, the United States spent nearly $500 billion (inflation-adjusted) developing the Interstate Highway System. This investment has paid dividends, underpinning a half-century of strong economic growth, but today highway congestion chokes our cities and worsens faster than we can build new roads.

With many of our busiest highways unable to add capacity due to urban development, we need a new method of connecting our cities. High-speed rail can meet this need, moving more Americans faster and more efficiently, helping to relieve our over-burdened roads and airports, and reducing our dependence on foreign oil. As we prepare to add 140 million new Americans by 2050, we must again invest in our future.

We don't need high-speed rail because China has it. We need high-speed rail because, despite its initial cost, it is the best way of tying the country together, uniting regional economies, and facilitating the mobility that will allow the United States to compete and win in the new global marketplace. Americans shouldn't draw hasty conclusions from the Chinese case because, simply put, American high-speed rail is for Americans.

Daniel Ferry is a graduate student at Cornell University studying regional planning and real estate, and is interning for America 2050, a national infrastructure research and advocacy group.