Why China Is so Good at Building Railways

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    References:
    [1] https://www.economist.com/china/2017/01/13/china-has-built-the-worlds-largest-bullet-train-network
    [2] https://datahelpdesk.worldbank.org/knowledgebase/articles/906519-world-bank-country-and-lending-groups
    [3] http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/451551468241176543/pdf/932270BRI0Box30ffic020140final000EN.pdf
    [4] https://www.oag.com/on-time-performance-star-ratings-2018
    [5] https://www.export.gov/article?id=China-Aviation
    [6] https://translate.google.com.au/translate?sl=auto&tl=en&js=y&prev=_t&hl=en&ie=UTF-8&u=http%3A%2F%2Fpolitics.people.com.cn%2FGB%2F14562%2F10317457.html&edit-text=&act=url
    [7] https://www.ft.com/content/ca28f58a-955d-11e8-b747-fb1e803ee64e
    [8] http://www.hsr.ca.gov/docs/about/business_plans/Draft_2018_Business_Plan.pdf
    [9] https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/bitstream/handle/10986/25483/892000BRI0Box3000china0transport09.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
    [10] https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Ralf_Wilhelms/publication/280924889_Social_Benefits_As_Part_In_The_Economic_Evaluation_Of_High_Speed_Rail/links/55cb933508aebc967dfe1a03/Social-Benefits-As-Part-In-The-Economic-Evaluation-Of-High-Speed-Rail.pdf
    [11] http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2018-05/05/c_137158303.htm
    [12] https://www.economist.com/china/2017/01/13/china-has-built-the-worlds-largest-bullet-train-network

    Animation by Josh Sherrington
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    China airspace time-lapse courtesy FlightRadar24.com
    Air China 747 landing shot courtesy ZurichAirportSpotter
    China Eastern 737 takeoff shot courtesy PDX Aviation
    Tibet railway shots courtesy Steven Chen and PK Long

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    Select footage courtesy the AP Archive


    Published


    This video was made possible by Squarespace. Build your beautiful website for 10% off at squarespace.com/Wendover. Imagine a train that took you from Washington, DC to Dallas, Texas in nine hours… or Paris, France to Athens, Greece in nine hours… or Adelaide, South Australia to Perth, Western Australia in nine hours. These train trips actually take 44 hours, 44 hours, and 41 hours respectively so the idea of making any of these trips by train in nine hours seems almost absurd. In China, though, that’s reality. In September, 2018 the country opened up a brand new high speed rail route with d irect trains from Hong Kong to Beijing. This is about the same distance as DC to Dallas, Paris to Athens, or Adelaide to Perth and yet these trains make the trip in only 8 hours and 56 minutes. What makes this even more impressive is that ten years ago, in 2008, at the time of the Beijing Olympics, China’s high-speed rail network consisted of this. We’ll have to zoom in because the extent of the network was one 19 mile-long Maglev train from Shanghai Airport to the outskirts of Shanghai and a traditional high-speed rail line from Beijing to the coastal city of Tianjin. Today, ten years later, that network has expanded into this. China has eight times as much high speed track as France, ten times as much as Japan, twenty times as much as the UK, and five-hundred times as much as the US. In fact, China has as much high-speed rail track as the rest of the world combined. It is staggering the amount of progress they have made in such a short amount of time. Traditionally high speed rail exists in small countries with rich populations by the likes of Germany, France, and Japan. China is neither of these things. The country is enormous, about the same size as the US, and is also not rich. While no longer poor, China is definitively a middle income country. It’s about as rich as Mexico, Thailand, or Brazil. In fact, despite being the country with the most high speed rail in the world, China is also the poorest country in the world to have any high speed rail. Despite the country’s vast size, China’s huge population makes it very dense especially in the east half. This means that China does have large cities close enough together where it makes sense to take the train rather than the plane. Trips like Guangzhou to Changsha, a distance of 350 miles, take an hour by plane or 2 hours and 20 minutes by train. When factoring in the time it takes to check in, go through security, and board it absolutely makes sense to go by train when traveling between these two cities even without considering that the high-speed train is cheaper than flying. High speed rail even makes sense in China on longer routes where it wouldn’t in other countries. Beijing and Shanghai, for example, are about 650 miles apart. Normally that would be too far for high speed rail to make sense. Paris and Barcelona, for example, are 500 miles apart—closer than Beijing and Shanghai—but only two high speed trains a day run between the two cities compared to about 20 flights. Between Beijing and Shanghai, on the other hand, about 50 flights run per day run compared to 41 trains. Considering the trains carry far more people each, up to 1,200, trains are therefore the dominant means of transport between these two cities. There are a few differences between these two routes. For one, while Beijing-Shanghai by train takes 4 hours and 28 minutes, Paris-Barcelona, despite being a shorter distance, takes a longer 6 hours and 25 minutes. The other factor, though, is about the competition. Europe has an efficient air transport network dominated by budget airlines that are often far cheaper than trains. You can find tickets for flights between Paris and Barcelona for as little as $12 while the cheapest Beijing-Shanghai flights go for $74. Air travel within China is also far from efficient. China Southern, China Eastern, and Air China, the three largest Chinese airlines, arrive on time an average of 67%, 66%, and 63% of the time respectively. A big reason for this is that there’s just not enough room in the skies. A majority of China’s airspace is military controlled meaning that there are just these narrow flight corridors that account for 30% of airspace where civilian planes can fly. With tons of planes and not much room to fly planes are frequently delayed by air traffic control to wait for the airspace to clear up which leads to the abysmal on-time ratings of the country’s airlines. While the Beijing-Shanghai flight takes only two hours the potential of delays, along with all the other factors that make air travel slower, help make the train the popular means of transport on this longer route. Other train routes in China, though, make less sense. For example, in 2014, the new high speed train line opened between Lanzhou and Urumqi. These two cities are relatively small by China standards. They both have a population of 3.5 million and between them are only small towns. They’re also not close—about 1,000 miles separate them. This project could therefore be compared to building a high speed train from Denver to Seattle—they’re modestly sized cities a long way’s apart with nothing big in between. Some people would use it but it wouldn’t make any financial sense. In China, Lanzhou and Urumqi are not small cities but there’s really nothing big in between and, at that distance, there’s no sense not flying. The Lanzhou-Urumqi high speed train takes 11 hours compared to the 2.5 hour flight and the construction cost of that line was $20 billion meaning that, if every seat on every train was filled tickets would still have to cost $400 each way just to make back the construction cost in 30 years. In reality tickets cost about $80 and trains are far from full meaning that this rail line is just insanely far from profitable. The ticket revenues from these trains reportedly don’t even cover the cost of electricity for the line let alone construction and other operating costs. So why would the Chinese government sink so much money into something that has no prospects of really ever making money? Well, politics. Urumqi is the capital of the Xinjiang province. While 92% of China’s population is Han Chinese, the Xinjiang province is primarily Uyghur—one of the minority ethnic groups of China—and there has been an ongoing fairly strong separatist movement by the Uyghurs from China that has often turned violent. The central government in Beijing, however, wants the Xinjiang province to be just as integrated as the rest of the country and has tried a variety of methods to force this including moving Han Chinese into the region and the imprisonment of Uyghurs in so-called “reeducation camps.” The high-speed train is just the most recent tactic to bring Xinjiang closer to Beijing and this is no secret. The central government is fully upfront in saying that the line was built to promote, as they call it, “ethnic unity.” This isn’t even the first time they’ve used this tactic of railroad politics. Tibet, a region even better known than Xinjiang for its independence movement, was the last region in China not to have a railway due to its small population and intense terrain. The central government still wanted to build one, though, to bring it closer to the rest of the country and so they did. Trains now run directly from Beijing to Lhasa, Tibet in 47 hours on the highest elevation rail line in the world. These trains reach an elevation of 16,640 feet—so high that passengers have to use a direct oxygen supply. Even the train to Hong Kong serves the central government’s goal of further integrating Hong Kong, which is an autonomous special administrative region, into mainland China. While high-speed trains to Hong Kong certainly do make a lot more sense than trains to the Xinjiang province, many Hong Kongers have not greeted the new service kindly as they view it as an encroachment on the autonomy guaranteed to them by Hong Kong Basic Law. The most controversial part has not been the fact that there’s a train but rather that the station in Hong Kong includes an area that is effectively now part of Mainland China since people pass through border controls before boarding the train in Hong Kong. Just like any country, what having a high-speed, efficient rail network in China is doing is bringing the country together and making it stronger even if it’s bringing together people that want to stay apart. No matter their motives, it’s clear that China is building their high speed rail network more efficiently than any other country. To compare, this is the plan for California’s high speed rail line from San Francisco to the Los Angeles area. It’s currently in very early phases of construction and is expected to open by 2029. Of course that means that the time it will take for the California’s high speed rail network to go from this to this is the same as the time it took China’s high speed rail network to go from this to this but, the main thing to look at is cost. This Californian network is expected to cost $77 billion and is 520 miles long meaning that it will cost $148 million per mile to build. China, on the other hand, is building their network at a cost of only $30 million per mile. Of course labor costs are lower in China and their network crosses more rural areas where land acquisition costs are lower but, what’s more meaningful is that they’ve turned building high speed rail into almost an assembly line process where they can mass produce even the most expensive elements like viaducts and tunnels. In true Chinese fashion, with scale they’re making high-speed cheaper. The big difference between China and a lot of the western world, particularly countries like the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK, is that high speed rail is at the top of the government’s priorities. Unsurprisingly given their government structure, in many ways, China has placed social benefit, at least by the definition of t...
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