Rail in China: high price for high speed

Out of any transit mode, for some reason trains just get people excited. And high-speed rail not only sounds cool, but have you seen those trains? That’s some sexy infrastructure.

photo by triplefivechina

China’s high-speed rail system is the world’s darling with over 4,000 miles of lines and its promises to connect mega-cities as well as the remote interior with the developed coast. But an American professor in Beijing, Patrick Chovanec, recently looked at how high-speed rail has actually changed travel habits in China. The results are interesting, if not entirely surprising, and are already starting to be used as leverage to take the wind out of the sails of high-speed rail advocates in the U.S.

The gist of it is that train tickets are expensive, mostly to recover the costs of expensive infrastructure (never mind that those trains are pretty fancy), so these trains end up being more of a substitute for air travel by the wealthy rather than mobilizing the masses. Fast train tracks displaced slow train tracks, so now with less capacity on cheap trains people of limited means are taking long-distance buses instead of new trains as anticipated.

This might sound familiar to you New Yorkers or Washingtonians who hop between the two cities. As a low-wage grad student, do I take the ridiculously overpriced Acela? Not a chance – I’ll take the $20 bus, thank you, a model that connects East Coasters from all walks of life that has its own sensational transit story that’s ironically straight out of Chinatown. High-speed trains here cater to business travelers whose jobs pay the ticket, presumably because their time is worth a lot more than mine (in dollar terms anyway).

That’s rational human behavior, but I’m skeptical of Chovanec’s argument that instead of better connecting people in China’s interior that freight transport should be beefed up using the U.S. as a model. He says, “Rather than moving people more quickly, [China] should build a rail system that moves goods and makes people more productive where they already are.”

Can’t we make a similar equity argument here, where fast transit will remain in the realm of the wealthy and regular people should just stay where they are? Can’t investments in personal mobility and goods transport happen simultaneously? Chovanec lauds the U.S. freight system, but if you’ve sat on a stalled Amtrak train in the Midwest watching freight trains pass by the people trains you can see where our priorities are too. Just having jobs nearby also doesn’t take care of the fact that people need to travel for other personal reasons, and if people do better economically with those jobs then they’ll demand to travel more.




  1. Paul

    The infrastructurist responds to the same article here http://www.infrastructurist.com/2011/01/19/is-chinas-high-speed-rail-pricing-out-passengers/, and looking at the comments you see that Chovanec’s numbers are misleading. For instance on the Beijing-Tianjin line (equivalent to the distance between NY and Philly), fares range from $9 to $15 for a “top class” seat. Now China still has a large poor population, so even these prices are expensive for a majority of the population. But they’re able to keep the fares low because they have tons of trains running- as frequently as every 10 minutes: http://www.beijingchina.net.cn/transportation/train/train-to-tianjin.html. The Acela trains only run once an hour because the tracks are extremely crowded, in particular the NY-NJ tunnel and New Haven Line sections in Westchester have headways of about a minute, which explains the high cost. Also, high speed trains need a lot of space or they’ll catch up to slower trains. Mixing of train speed types decreases the number of trains you can run: I saw an image of this once, but you can run 5 hsr trains at 200 mph or 1 200 mph train and 1 120 mph train in the same time period. Which is Amtrak knows that eventually a new set of Northeast Corridor tracks will need to be built. Also, CA HSR believes SF-LA could be as little as $60.

    • amyloufaust

      Thanks Paul – good stuff. Glad to see the strong response to Chovanec’s work. This whole issue and all the cries of “elitism!” with HSR and the price comparisons to air travel as a benchmark for reasonable travel make me want to also know more about the history of air travel. Granted, I wasn’t there, but I think the privilege of flying was also pretty pricey and reserved for elites when the infrastructure was just coming online. That said, are expensive tickets something unique to HSR, or just the price to pay for a new mode of transportation that will eventually normalize to prices regular people will be able to afford?

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