China’s high-speed trains have taken a battering over the past few months – in the case of the tragic crash that killed at least 40 people near the east-coast city of Wenzhou in late July, literally so. But even before the public outrage that erupted following the first major accident to hit China’s sleek new fleet of bullet trains, the country’s high-speed dream had begun to sour.
The litany of problems plaguing the high-speed network make embarrassing reading for the technocrats who have staked so much political capital on China’s latest engineering marvel. The first whiff of trouble came in April with the sacking of Ministry of Railways chief Liu Zhijun. Liu, a major driving force behind China’s ambitious high-speed plan, was accused of embezzling US$124 billion.
Then came the news that top speeds would be cut from the advertised 350-380 km/h to 300 km/h – adding nearly an hour onto the flagship service between Beijing and Shanghai. In his eagerness for China’s new generation of bullet trains to outpace their counterparts in Japan and France, Liu had deliberately ignored safety concerns.
And when the long-awaited Beijing-Shanghai express finally opened, power cuts left thousands of passengers stranded in sweltering carriages for hours – this despite reports that the heavily indebted Ministry of Railways had spent even more on the high-speed network than anyone thought.
So when two trains collided in Wenzhou, public opinion was primed to explode, and explode it did. When propaganda officials compounded the problem by literally attempting to bury the evidence, even conservative media outlets joined in the mudslinging – despite being instructed to keep their mouths shut.
The government has its work cut out to regain public confidence after the Wenzhou crash. The crassness of the official response to the accident turned a serious problem into a public relations disaster.
Public anger at corruption in the Ministry of Railways and widespread contempt for the authorities’ response is entirely justified. Yet that does not change the economics of the high-speed network, which remain fundamentally sound. Critics who say the cost of high-speed rail cannot be justified have little evidence. It is far too early to write off China’s high-speed dream as an expensive – and dangerous – white elephant. The incompetence of the Ministry of Railways and the Propaganda Department notwithstanding, investment in China’s high-speed rail network will still pay off in the long run.
Critics who argue that China’s high-speed trains are too expensive for ordinary people and will run empty at a huge loss both ignore the facts and miss the point of high-speed rail. Your correspondent has taken dozens of high-speed trains across China and found them all, without exception, to be packed with ordinary city folk – including a train from Beijing to Shanghai just five days after the Wenzhou crash.
But the point of the high-speed network, which critics so often fail to recognize, is twofold. The trains are of course designed to make fast travel between major urban centers more affordable than flying. The average cost of a train ticket from Beijing to Shanghai is half that of a plane ticket.
Crucially, however, they will also free up valuable space on the trunk lines for freight. China’s rail network has suffered from freight bottlenecks for years. The difficulty of transporting coal from northwest China is one of the major causes of
annual brownouts on the east coast.
Dedicated high-speed passenger lines help to solve this problem. So long as safety concerns are addressed and teething problems solved – and there is no reason why they should not be – China can rediscover its high-speed dream.
Fat Dragon is China Economic Review’s house pundit on the Chinese political economy