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China is pulling ahead in worldwide race for high-speed rail transportation

(The following story by Keith B. Richburg appeared on the Washington Post website on May 12, 2010.)

QINGDAO, China — Last year, China surpassed the United States as the world's largest automaker. The country is aggressively making jets to compete with Boeing and Airbus. And in recent years, with little outside notice, China made another great leap forward in transportation: It now leads the world in high-speed rail.

High-speed trains were once the preserve of Japan, with its "bullet train," and France, with its TGV. But China's trains are the world's fastest, its network of tracks the longest and its expansion plans the most ambitious. By 2012, just four years after it began its first high-speed passenger service, China will have more high-speed train tracks than the rest of the world combined.

After years of major investment in highways, China is now investing billions in a cutting-edge network of trains and subways designed to boost exports and revolutionize the flow of people and goods in the world's fastest-rising economic powerhouses.

"Just like our investment in the highway system in the 1950s and the rail system in the late 1800s, this will pay huge dividends for China to years to come," said Tim Schweikert, chief executive of GE Transportation China, which signed a deal last year to invest in China's rail expansion in exchange for using Chinese trains and technology to bid on high-speed rail projects in the United States.

Chinese officials said exporting to the United States is part of a broader goal of becoming the chief high-speed train supplier to the world, as well as serving China's vast domestic market.

China's state-owned CSR Sifang has had interest from customers in Thailand, Singapore, the Middle East, as well as the United States, said Gong Ming, chief engineer at CSR's sprawling plant in the city of Qingdao.

A lot of interest

China is one of several countries, including Japan and France, interested in the U.S. high-speed rail market. China is trying to sweeten its bid by offering low-interest financing. And to counter resistance to Chinese incursion into the railway business, the GE deal stipulates that the locomotive components would be 80 percent American and 20 percent Chinese, and all of the final assembly would be done in the United States.

Many of China's high-speed trains are assembled in Qingdao, an industrial city facing the Yellow Sea, in a plant with more than 7,000 workers, including about 2,000 research and design engineers. The plant rolls out 200 sets of sleek new white bullet trains each year, each train set capable of traveling at 217 mph.

In one workshop, which employees call "secret," development is underway on the next-generation train that will travel even faster, taking the world's top passenger speed to 236 mph. The first prototype is scheduled for testing in weeks.

Next year, when a new Beijing-to-Shanghai high-speed line will open (a year ahead of schedule), those fast trains will cut to just four hours the travel time for the 600-mile journey between China's two most important cities.

Trains are creating competition with airlines: After a high-speed train route opened last year between Zhengzhou and Xi'an, airlines stopped all flights between the cities. Travelers preferred a two-hour train ride that cost $57 to a 40-minute flight that cost $73.

Most striking about China's emergence in the high-speed train field is that it is all relatively new; the country's first passenger train to top 186 mph, from Beijing to Tianjin, began operating in 2008. That was about the time that President Obama, then still a senator campaigning for office, was bemoaning the fact that the United States had fallen behind.

Zhao Xiaogang, the board chairman of CSR's parent company in Beijing, said he was heartened to hear Obama express an interest in China's high-speed train technology during his visit here in November.

"I'm glad to see the Obama administration show such interest in high-speed projects," Zhao said. "CSR would like to show strong interest in these high-speed rail projects in the United States."

From highway to rail

Until the middle of this decade, China had mostly invested in expanding its highway network to accommodate the growing demand for automobiles. Rail was largely consigned to freight, mostly to haul minerals from the West to the manufacturing centers in the East. From 1997 to 2002, highway construction spending was seven times the amount invested in rail.

Starting in 2004, the amount spent on rail was steadily increased, and in October 2008 the government approved more than $100 billion as part of an economic stimulus package designed to stave off the impact of the global recession and create jobs.

By contrast, the Obama administration's $787 billion stimulus package included just $8 billion for investment in high-speed rail -- barely enough, experts said, to be considered "seed money" for targeted rail projects, including an Orlando-to-Tampa line in Florida and one in California.

This year, China will have invested another $120 billion in high-speed rail development while continuing to expand its highways. China is also spending large amounts on urban subway systems that will be linked up with high-speed trains in cities. China currently has about 60 subway projects underway in more than 20 cities.

Shanghai already has the fastest "maglev" train, shorthand for the German-built "magnetic levitation" technology that propels the wheel-less train using a series of powerful magnets on a track. The maglev makes the 18-mile trip to Shanghai's Pudong airport in under eight minutes, reaching top speeds of just over 187 mph.

Some foreign economists question how long the government can keep pumping money into building rail networks, subways and highways -- and there have been hints from China's government officials that the stimulus spending could be winding down soon.

Critics also question the cost to the public for tickets. On the new high-speed train from Guangzhou to Wuhan, ticket prices range from $71 to $129, about three times the price of the cheapest seat on the conventional train.

Last month, a group of four Beijing-based lawyers wrote a public letter to the government complaining that the railroad ministry was harming consumers and seeking "extreme profits" with the high ticket prices. The lawyers urged public hearings on the prices. There was no response.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

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