While it attempts to kick-start its struggling auto industry, the U.S. is talking about building a high-speed rail network with an initial $8 billion in stimulus funds. Meanwhile, China is investing over $300 billion in high-speed rail through 2020, in a bid to speed ahead of the rest of the world's train systems.The numbers alone are head-spinning: 16,000 miles of new track by 2020, requiring 117 million tons of concrete just to construct the buttresses on which the tracks will lie. Top speeds from Beijing to Shanghai will approach 220 miles an hour, halving the current travel time to four hours. This year China Railway Company plans to hire 20,000 young engineers. Can we say leapfrogging?
Rail at Center of Stimulus Package
China's high speed rail build-out is at the front and center of its stimulus spending, in large part out of fear: little is more intimidating to Beijing's leaders than the sight of thousands of unemployed workers. So far the construction of the Beijing-Shanghai route alone has employed about 110,000 people.
The rest of China's stimulus program is focused on building airports, highways and environmental projects, particularly water treatment plants.
But alongside the need for jobs, the demand for better rail in China is also significant. Last year saw 1.46 billion journeys by rail, a 10.9% rise from 2007. The figure could double by next decade.
Stunning Rail Plan
Most of the new high-speed links will not be considerably faster than European trains. Thirty-five lines for trains traveling at 125 mph or more, measuring 6,800 miles in total, will be brought into service by 2012, officials say, with 4,350 more miles by 2020.
But the first phase will include five major routes — three running north to south, two east to west — with trains reaching 217 mph or 236 mph.
China spent $44 billion last year -- up from $12 billion in 2004 -- on rail.
"I don't think anything compares except maybe the growth of the U.S. rail network at the start of the 20th century," John Scales, the transport coordinator for China at the World Bank, told the Times.
China Speeds Off
In a recent piece by Bill Powell in Fortune, China's build-out plays foil to the U.S.'s sputtering $8 billion rail plans.
That $8 billion isn't much considering that as of last month, 40 states submitted 278 pre-applications for various high-speed passenger rail projects, amounting to $102.5 billion in requests. California wants to link San Francisco with L.A. via a high-speed link. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wants the private sector to get into the act, proposing a high-speed spur to connect Las Vegas with L.A. Final applications are due August 24, and the FRA will begin distributing funds in September.
As Americans wait for projects to be approved, by 2012 Chinese rail travelers could begin to use the largest, most technologically sophisticated rail system in the world.
Much of the high-end rail technology, by the way, is coming from overseas. Canada's Bombardier is working on signaling systems and on 40 of the systems trains.
And the kicker to the Fortune piece:
Maybe, after environmental reviews are finished and eminent domain issues settled, [America's] lines will be built. Meanwhile, IBM opened its new global high-speed-rail innovation center last month.
Rail Growth = Economic Growth
The infrastructure spending appears to be driving surprise growth in China's economy. The country's second-quarter growth, at 7.9%, beat expectations, while economists at Goldman Sachs expect China's growth this year will exceed Beijing's estimate of 8.1%. Despite slowing exports from the global downturn, China's overall steel production capacity has increased by 10% to 12% over a year ago.
There's no doubt that "the acceleration of [the massive railroad build-out] is playing a key role in China's recovery," says David Li, an economist at Beijing's Tsinghua University.
In May we cited a piece at Infrastructurist arguing that a serious investment in high-speed rail in the U.S. could provide as many if not more jobs than the country's auto industry.
Flickr: Bernt Rostad
Why is China So Good at This?
As with China's push to become the world leader in electric cars and hybrids, the country's command economy management means that big projects can get going faster than they might under a clunky American bureaucracy. Meanwhile, the manufacturing sector provides more than enough steel and concrete. But China's infrastructure success also rests on the early start it got: the rail build-up began in 2005, meaning projects were "shovel-ready" by the time recession hit.
The U.S. meanwhile is still looking for its shovel.
More on High Speed Rail at TreeHugger
Will Stimulus be Enough to Bring High-Speed Rail to America?
U.S. Rail Network Could Create As Many Jobs As Auto Industry
Obama Plans Massive New High Speed Railroad