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China's high-speed rail line revolution

(The following story by Keith Bradsher appeared on the New York Times website on February 14, 2010.)

WUHAN, China — Last month, President Barack Obama lauded high-speed rail lines to be built with stimulus money, including one connecting Chicago and St. Louis.

Two days after Obama made his speech, China started full service on its own, much longer line. The trip — comparable to going from Boston to southern Virginia — takes just three hours, half an hour faster than Amtrak's Acela takes to go just from Boston to New York. And the super-fast train from here to Guangzhou is just one of 42 high-speed rail lines in China either recently opened or is scheduled to complete by the end of 2012.

With average speeds of 215 mph over long distances, the world's fastest average speed, China's trains come with more than just bragging rights.

Speaking in Tampa, Fla., last month, Obama warned that the United States was falling behind Asia and Europe in high-speed rail construction and other clean energy industries. "Other countries aren't waiting," he said. "They want those jobs. China wants those jobs. Germany wants those jobs. They are going after them hard, making the investments required."

Indeed, the web of superfast trains promises to make China even more economically competitive, connecting this vast country — roughly the same size as the United States — as never before, much as the building of the interstate highway system increased productivity and reduced costs in America a half-century ago.

As China upgrades and expands its rail system, it creates the economies of large-scale production for another big export industry. "The sheer

volume of equipment that they will require, and the technology that will have to be developed, will simply catapult them into a leadership position," said Stephen Gardner, Amtrak's vice president for policy and development.

China's lavish new rail system is a response to a failure of central planning six years ago.

After China joined the World Trade Organization in November 2001, exports and manufacturing soared. Electricity generation failed to keep up because the railway ministry had not built enough rail lines or purchased enough locomotives to haul the coal needed to run new power plants.

By 2004, the government was turning off the power to some factories up to three days a week to prevent blackouts in residential areas.

Officials drafted a plan to move much of the nation's passenger traffic onto high-speed routes by 2020, freeing existing tracks for more freight. Then the global financial crisis hit in late 2008. Faced with mass layoffs at export factories, China ordered that the new rail system be completed by 2012 instead of 2020, throwing more than $100 billion in stimulus at the projects.

Administrators mobilized armies of laborers — 110,000 just for the 820-mile route from Beijing to Shanghai, which will cut travel time there to five hours, from 12, when it opens next year.

Zhang Shuguang, the deputy chief engineer of China's railway ministry, said in a speech last September that the government planned 42 lines by 2012, with 5,000 miles of track for passenger trains at 215 mph and 3,000 miles of track for passenger and fast freight trains traveling 155 mph. Top speed on the Tampa-to-Orlando line is supposed to be 168 mph.

Though they have yet to retreat from their goals, Chinese officials have hinted in the last several weeks that stimulus spending may slow.

Some transportation experts predict that a few of the 42 routes may not be finished until 2013 or 2014 as a result. One worry is whether China is overinvesting in high-speed trains that may require operating subsidies like those for maintaining highways: fares on a route from Beijing to Tianjin have been set lower than initially forecast to make sure they stay full.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

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