One of the great advantages of train travel compared to flying is the saving in wasted time. A flight in most any country normally involves a one-hour trip to the airport with a requirement to arrive at least 1.5 hours prior to departure. At the arrival end, there is always the seemingly long wait to deplane, the long walk to the baggage carousels or the exits, then the one hour or more trip downtown.
When we take into account the commute and the necessary pre-departure allowance for check-in and security clearance and the 2-Km walk to the departure gate, then the post-arrival delays and the commute downtown at our destination, trains are equal to flying in trips up to 1,200 or even 1,500 Kms, and much faster than flying for shorter trips. Not only much quicker, but less expensive than air travel. The frequency of departures, at least between major centers in China is astonishing, the Shanghai-Beijing route having some 75 or 80 HSR trains each way each day, often leaving only 10 minutes apart.
In China, the railway stations are downtown so the commute is minimal, one arriving at the station with luggage in hand only 20 or 30 minutes before departure. There is no ‘check-in’ process as with the airlines, only the usual security check and luggage scanners when entering the station where you can spend time in comfortable waiting rooms or simply find the correct platform and board your train. Even though many stations are huge, walking distances are normally much shorter than in most airports.
Another advantage of train travel is the considerable convenience and comfort, trains being much superior in both categories with an absence of pressure and time apprehension. Trains eliminate most unpleasant elements of air travel, with the attraction of being able to see the countryside; from a plane, we see nothing. On a plane, we are forced to adhere to a rigid schedule: the time for coffee or a meal, the time to close the window curtains and darken the cabin so the staff can rest. If the food cart is out, you cannot get up to walk around or go to the bathroom. Everything seems regulated and under pressure. Leaving your seat is often a major inconvenience. By contrast, on a train you are free to do as you please. Your luggage is accessible at any time, the food carts come by regularly, the dining car is always there, seats have twice the leg room, the aisles wide enough to accommodate passengers, everything much more relaxed, pleasant, and enjoyable.
China’s high-speed trains are very quiet, without wind noise and mercifully free of the incessant hum of aircraft engines. On the latest generation of HSR with its flawlessly-welded rails, even the soft clacking of the rails is gone. The seats are as wide or wider than airline business class, they recline partially (recline fully in business class) and, with the comfort and silence, it is very easy to work or sleep on a train. At the destination, since that station is also downtown, taxis and subways are conveniently at hand.
Trains not dedicated to short runs have sleeper cars which are perfectly comfortable even in older trains, the later generations offering lovely duvets, a separate TV for each bunk, electrical outlets, lights, Wi-Fi. The sleeper cars offer a pleasant alternative to air travel for the typically rushed and pressurised one-day business trips, for example from Shanghai to Guangzhou, Shenzhen or Hong Kong. We board our train in the evening after dinner, do a bit of work or watch TV, and awake at 7:00 AM downtown at our destination, with enough time for breakfast before our first meeting. On the return trip, after a full unpressurised day, we have a leisurely dinner with friends, board the train and awake at 7:00 AM back in Shanghai. With two full nights’ sleep, there is no jet lag and no residual fatigue.
China’s HSR system is built to an intense high quality. The 300 Kph and 400 Kph trains run on special dedicated, elevated tracks laid on deep and heavily-reinforced beds of high-density concrete with vertical and horizontal deviations measured in millimeters, these tracks supported by massive columns of high strength concrete spaced very closely. HSR tracks are, insofar as is humanly and technologically possible, a straight and level line. China has the highest standards for stabilising high-speed trains in their longitudinal, lateral and vertical dimensions, a rail expert stating, “It is no exaggeration to say the Beijing-Shanghai rail lines were built with the highest standards in the modern world”, and that China leads the world in rail stability. When traveling by train I sometimes place a coin on its edge on the windowsill, and I have video of the coin remaining stable for four or five minutes before it finally falls over – and this is at 300 Kms per hour. I have lost the link, but there is a video on YouTube of a coin remaining on edge for 8 minutes.
China has not succumbed to the privatisation pressure from the neocon bankers and has retained control of its infrastructure, an enormous blessing for rapid and efficient development. The country is able to plan and amend its entire travel infrastructure as a whole, considering air, rail and road, taking into account only the benefits to the entire country rather than having to appease a multitude of private interests. HSR trains have cut travel time so dramatically that airline services on many routes have been suspended. In the absence of competing interests, a nationwide plan can be conceived, examined, discussed and approved in a much shorter time than in countries with a different system, and implementation times much reduced as well.
China’s new HSR line from Shanghai to Beijing, a distance of about 1,200 Kms was a masterpiece of unobstructed planning and execution. For construction, the government hired almost 140,000 workers to build multiple sections simultaneously, the entire project completed in two years at a cost of less than $20 billion. By contrast, in the US, the cost of an HSR line along the Eastern seaboard, a distance only half as long, has been estimated at $120 billion and might require 20 years to completion.
As another example, the province of Alberta in Canada is considering construction of an HSR line connecting the two major cities – a route of only 300 Kms, yet the planning stage is expected to take 5 years and cost $50 million; if approved, the subsequent construction process is projected to require another 5 years at least. The interim negotiations for right of way, the bidding processes, the dealing with all the various private interests as well as the cities involved, is expected to add 5 years to the process.
It is critical to note that economic development follows transportation. Countries like Canada and the US would never have developed without the cross-country transportation systems being in place. But it is almost certainly too late for both Canada and the US with high-speed rail, too many decades of auto-dependent development condemning both countries to irreversible transport deficiencies.
China’s high-speed rail ambitions are already global. China Railway Group is participating in a high-speed rail project in Venezuela.
China Railway Construction Corp. is helping build a high-speed line in Turkey linking Ankara and Istanbul.
Chinese companies are bidding for contracts in Brazil, and Russia, Saudi Arabia and Poland have expressed interest.
China is already expanding its domestic rail network to mesh with new routes in Vietnam and plans to extend a route all the way to Singapore.
Chinese rail officials are also in the planning stages of a high-speed rail route through Western China and Xinjiang Province, through Kyrgyzstan and other ‘stans’, connecting with the lines in Turkey and proceeding Westward into Europe. It may one day soon be possible to travel by HSR all the way from Shanghai to London – at a fraction of the cost of flying, and with far more comfort and the ability to see many countries on route.
Technology Transfer is not Free
Whenever the subject of technology transfer arises, there seems to always arise a flurry of accusations about copying or stealing. Readers should carefully note that China did not “steal” anyone’s rail technology; instead, it was all purchased. China paid billions of dollars for that transfer of technology. It is the same in all important industries today. China has the money, and is willing to pay handsomely for technology it needs to further its development.
High-speed rail was pioneered in post-war Japan in the 1950s and early 1960s with the construction of the Shinkansen ‘bullet train’. France, Germany and other European countries followed suit in the 1980s. Serious thinking about building faster rail in China began in the 1990s and, to make up for a late start, the Chinese government looked abroad. In 2004, China signed agreements with Alstom and Kawasaki to cooperate with local firms in building HSR train sets for China. Kawasaki, who designed the original Hayate bullet train, signed a deal with the Chinese ministry of Railways for the transfer of a full spectrum of HSR technology to a manufacturer in Qingdao.
China’s arrangement to obtain European and Japanese high-speed train technologies carried a stiff price. Kawasaki’s 2004 deal with the Railways Ministry alone, which included the transfer of the whole spectrum of technology and know-how for the bullet train, cost China nearly $800 million at the time. Kawasaki originally manufactured train sets and exported them to China fully assembled, then helped Chinese manufacturers produce another 50 sets locally. Kawasaki also supplied China with training in both Japan and China, and various technology updates, each new provision costing many millions of dollars in fees.
Siemens, Bombardier and Alsthom signed similar deals with China to transfer the technology necessary to produce their train sets. Chinese firms also paid many millions of dollars in fees to purchase upgrades of the technology and further training; in many cases, Chinese engineers were sent to Europe and Japan for extended periods for study. Later, the companies helped set up production facilities within China. They trained Chinese engineers while helping the country develop its own supply chain for train components.
And Some Sellers’ Remorse
Major foreign industries had long sought to tap China’s vast market for the imagined enormous rewards, and high-speed rail was in the forefront. The Japanese and European companies that pioneered high-speed rail agreed to sell trains to China on the expectation of access to the most ambitious rapid rail system in history and contracts worth billions per year indefinitely into the future. Their eagerness in agreeing to the sale of technology was based on expectations that the Chinese would need perhaps 30 years to absorb and implement the technology before being ready to proceed on their own. The reality was somewhat different: they found themselves having to compete with Chinese firms who adapted and improved their technology and produced superior products only three years later.
Many decades have passed since the Japanese built the first HSR, and relatively little development was achieved before China entered the picture. Certainly part of the reason was that the Japanese hoarded their technology for the sake of national pride, rather than marketing it to the world. By the time they changed their attitude, the world had passed them by and their technology is now old. Japan agreed to a technology sale rather late in the process, and held back the latest generation of developments. When China proved its ability to combine technologies from all firms and create a new, superior product, the Japanese appeared quite bitter, Kawasaki going so far as to claim that China’s trains were just ‘tweaked versions’ of its original bullet train with minor variations to the exterior paint scheme and interior trim. Of course the real problem is that it is now impossible for Japan to compete with China on international markets since they hoarded their technology for too long and have been surpassed. Marketing is difficult when your only selling point is that the other guy’s faster and cheaper trains are copies of your slow and expensive ones.
Something similar occurred with Shanghai’s 430 Kph Maglev train (the world’s only operating Maglev) which was built by Siemens. Maglev technology is simple in principle at low speeds, but smoothness and stability at high speed are exceptionally complicated. Due to pride of authorship as with the Japanese, Siemens also refused to consider a sale of technology, preferring to hold out for astonishingly high prices of the finished product. The result was that Chinese engineers turned their full R&D attention to Maglevs and Siemens may find itself permanently out of the market. Chinese engineers first produced very successful low-speed Maglevs (200 Kph) entirely on their own IP, for use throughout China as city trains, but are now beginning commercial production of a fabulous 600 Kph Maglev which may become a substitute for traditional high-speed rail. The cost to Shanghai for Siemens’ Maglev was very high, but Chinese engineers have managed, again on their own IP, to bring down the cost for this very fast train to only two-thirds that of regular high-speed trains.
The Western firms confused their head start with their R&D capacity, attributing both to natural superiority, confidently assuming they were more innovative rather than simply having begun earlier. Kawasaki and Siemens in particular knew the Chinese engineers wanted to produce trains based entirely on domestic technology, so they refused to part with their more advanced products and sold China rail technology that was already two or even three generations old. The assumption was that Japanese and German R&D capability coupled with their huge lead would maintain an impassable gap and permit them to capture the entire Chinese market.
To say that they underestimated the power of Chinese innovation and the speed and quality of R&D in China, is an understatement of some magnitude, with both Kawasaki and Siemens finding themselves left at the starting gate only a few years later. The Chinese rail companies paid billions of dollars for older technology from four established firms. As a first step they disassembled, evaluated, and combined all those technologies into one train with the best features of each. The second step was to utilise their formidable R&D abilities to then create entirely new trains built entirely on Chinese-owned IP, producing trains that were faster, smoother, quieter, and less expensive than the newest generation of their former suppliers.
High speed rail was pioneered in Europe and Japan, but there was no market outside those areas until China entered the picture, this entrance validating the feasibility of widespread adoption and greater affordability. It appears now that China will dominate the HSR market for the foreseeable future, but foreign companies will still share in a much larger worldwide market. This was not an accident. The Chinese government planned the largest scale HSR network in the world 30 years ago and committed large sums to fund the program. Chinese engineers have exhibited enormous ingenuity and creativity and are still aggressively pushing the rail technology envelope. Developing countries are particularly grateful that China has brought the cost of HSR to affordable levels.
I will make here one observation on safety. When China’s HSR had an accident at Wenzhou about ten years ago, the Western media were so delirious with schadenfreude that no one bothered to report the cause. It happens that every opportunity to criticise China will be transformed into a proven failure of China’s one-party government. In reporting on this train accident in 2011, the entire Western media eagerly pinned the blame not on a signals failure but on China’s one-party system. But Wikipedia lists 69 pages of rail accidents for the US alone, having several major and a bunch of minor ones every year. Since theology must be universal to be credible, it seems clear where the fault lies for all these terrible disasters – democracy causes train crashes.
But I digress. That rail accident was eerily reminiscent of Boeing’s 737 Max, where a major programming problem was not covered in the operating manuals. China’s railway system has dozens of installations across the country where every train is constantly monitored for many metrics like speed, axle temperatures, weather conditions. There developed a problem with a Japanese-made signaling system where the Japanese didn’t want Chinese engineers to fully understand the workings of the equipment and so provided faulty documentation. When the fault occurred, Chinese engineers immediately knew something was wrong and followed the operating manual, but to no avail because the manual was incomplete. I would note further that this was by no means the first time Chinese engineers had been deliberately misled on either the function or operation of IP they had bought and paid for.
Ripley’s ‘Believe it or Not’
This essay wouldn’t be complete without some reference to the US.
In 2012 and 2013 the US wallowed in an anguish created by envy of China’s high-speed rail network, America’s rickety and accident-prone rail system suffering badly in comparison. When it became apparent that the Americans could never duplicate China’s success, and confronted with the imminent failure of their ambition to join the world of high-speed rail, the Americans reduced the definition of “high-speed trains” from 400 Kph to 250 and then 150, before abandoning their quest altogether. Then, rationalisation through the uniquely American moral lens of politics and religion. “Our slow rail network is the price we pay for the great things about America like our democratic political system and our freedom of religion.”
An internet reader commented:
“The American failure to realise an HSR system is not because China has better leadership, vision, planning and execution and the wisdom to sacrifice short-term benefits and minority interests for the long term gain and the greater good; it’s because Americans have democracy and love freedom. The bickering and indecision, the squabbling, the vacillation and eventual paralysis of all levels of US government on this issue, an impossibility in any sane country, are actually a badge of merit in America, evidence of their virtuous freedom. So, let China build its high-speed trains. The more trains they have, the less free they become. The Americans would never be so foolish as to sacrifice freedom for good transportation or democracy for roads and bridges.”
I don’t know the author of this brief passage below, but I want to share the quote with you because he captured perfectly the American spirit.
“At the end of 2013, California was still hoping to build the nation’s first high-speed rail line, a 830 Kms track from Los Angeles to San Francisco, that would be scheduled for completion in 2029 (more than 16 years) and would cost about $70 billion not including the inevitable cost over-runs. By contrast, China built its 1,320 Kms Shanghai-Beijing HSR line in only three years at a cost of 200 billion Yuan – about $32 billion. So the US high-speed train – if it’s ever actually built – will be 60% slower than China’s, will take five times as long to build and cost almost five times as much for an equivalent distance. Of course, the Americans could just ask China to build their HSR in only 18 months at a cost of only $20 billion, but that would mean admitting Chinese superiority, and that means the US will never have high-speed rail.”
However, unknown to the world at large, America does indeed have a “high-speed train”, Richard Branson’s new ‘Brightline’, that runs 100 Kms from Miami to West Palm Beach in Florida. According to the promotions, these are “sleek, neon-yellow trains, which travel at speeds of up to 127 Kms/hr (!!!)”. To be fair to the Americans, they initially promoted this train as a “higher-speed train”, a small but worthy concession to reality that quickly disappeared. To be fair to the sleek, neon-yellow train, it is unable to reach its advertised top speed and in fact seldom reaches even 100 Kph, faster than a freight train, but not by much.
Also unknown to the world, this American version of HSR has already (in two or three years since inauguration) had numerous derailments, scores of accidents, and around 100 deaths – several of which occurred during the test run, after which the train was cleared for service. Brightline, nevertheless, said “safety remains the company’s top priority”. Interestingly, the US Federal Railroad Administration data show significantly fewer deaths because (if you can believe this) they classify many of the deaths as “possible suicides”, and then impose “reporting restrictions intended to safeguard privacy”. (1)
According to one news report, Brightline trains had been performing test runs between Miami, Ft. Lauderdale and West Palm Beach since January 2017, a period during which several fatalities occurred. (2) Another news report stated that according to the Federal Railroad Administration this train has had “the most fatalities along the corridor in that time period”. (3) The situation is so bad that there are at least two Florida law firms now specialising in Brightline accident victim litigation. (4)
Also, according to the Federal Railroad Administration, “a Brightline locomotive derailed … at four miles per hour …”. The report continued that this was the second derailment within two months, the main cause being that this US high-speed train is using tracks and rail bed that were built more than 60 years ago and intended only for slow-moving freight trains. The company refused to confirm the accident for nearly six months, even in testimony to a Senate Committee, then called the derailment “minor”, and dismissed the critics’ concern as a “baseless fear tactic”. (5) Another article carried this smidgen of news: “fault of the tracks, new, still very rough, as if they would become better with use. Ten days later the stretch of track was straightened.” (sic)
These issues are noteworthy in several ways. First, on safety: Running “higher-speed” trains through level crossings (at ground level), is begging for fatalities. Running passenger trains on dilapidated trackage and rail beds that haven’t been maintained for 60 years, is the same. A second item is so illustrative of a pathological quirk that appears to exist only in the US. From Brightline’s home webpage:
“Hand-stitched leather seats. Sit 2 or 4 together at a table. Relax pre-departure in our first-class SELECT lounge with an ever-changing lineup of enticing bites and beverages. Lounge business services including iPads, a scanner & printer. Access to conference rooms in our stations (a $50/hr value). Complimentary onboard Wi-Fi.”
Hand-stitched leather seats and an ever-changing lineup of enticing bites on a train that derails at 4 miles per hour and has had scores of accidents and already killed about 100 people. This is the way Americans design their cars. Appearance is everything and substance is nothing. American auto designers hold frequent market tests where they introduce citizens to new automobiles, the purpose being to see if the new degradations in quality and safety can pass these public tests undetected. A so-called high-speed train running on dangerous tracks is glossed over for leather seats and Wi-Fi. Only in America. One internet commenter wrote, “This proves that Americans are too stupid for high-speed rail.”
This last item may contain research worthy of a Master’s thesis, this being a newspaper headline on one of the derailments: “Brightline accidents tragic, but is railway really to blame?” The article stated that this “innovative high-speed passenger rail service has been in operation for only about a week and a half, and already people have died”, then went on to say that most readers put the blame not on the railway but on “the decision-making of people”. There was an almost irresistible poignancy about this claim. In reading the reports, I could not shake the feeling of listening to a small child, disappointed at some failure but lacking the maturity to see reality as it was, and making an excuse typical of an 8 year-old mind. I believe we could argue this to be the consciousness level of the typical adult American.
Larry Romanoffis a retired management consultant and businessman. He has held senior executive positions in international consulting firms, and owned an international import-export business. He has been a visiting professor at Shanghai’s Fudan University, presenting case studies in international affairs to senior EMBA classes. Mr. Romanoff lives in Shanghai and is currently writing a series of ten books generally related to China and the West. His writing has been translated into more than 20 languages and is available on more than 100 foreign-language websites around the world. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.