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  (Source: Shutterstock)
U.S. is left in the dust as China blazes ahead with $1T USD rail bid

America may be witnessing its descent into the twilight in terms of being on the bleeding edge of transportation technology.  This week China, the world's most populous nation opened the world's longest stretch of high-speed rail.

Linking the capital city of Beijing in the north with the southern city of Guangzhou, the 2,298 kilometer (1,428 mile) line has already began ferrying passengers at 300 kilometers per hour (186 mph).  The line will cut the fastest travel time between the cities from around 20 hours to only 8 hours, making it a day trip.

150 pairs of trains (300 total) will run daily along the line, which passes through the provincial capitals cities Shijiazhuang, Wuhan and Changsha.  

The rail line was not achieved without setbacks.  The bullet train project's supervisor, the former railway minister, and the ministry’s chief engineer were both detained in a corruption probe after a bullet train crash killed 40 people in mid-2011 and after a section of track in central China collapsed under heavy March rains.  China had to rebuild some of the line and slow test runs after finding corrupt contractors had used subpar building materials to construct sections of the track.

China rail launch
Chinese dignataries gather to celebrate the launch of the world's longest stretch of high-speed track. [Image Source: The Washington Post]

China, however, is not looking to let off the gas. It will have four major east-west lines, and three more major north-south lines by 2020, linking virtually every major city in China.  While the U.S. and other economic rivals initially expressed skepticism of China's ambitious rail plans -- which are expected to cost around $1T USD -- China has already achieved roughly half of its 18,000 kilometer goal for 2015, with 9,300 km (5,800 miles) of active high-speed track.

The Asian giant is also testing next-generation trains, which it hopes will travel at around 310 miles per hour, once again cutting travel time roughly in half.

The U.S., whose massively socialist national highway project was once perhaps the world's most ambitious and well-engineered transportation conduits, has balked at the proposal of a high-tech replacement for its aging government-owned roadways.  And the private sector in the U.S. has expressed precious little interest in such a project, due to the price and low profit potential.

China bullet train
One of the new bullet train hurtles down the track. [Image Source: Shutterstock]

It's hard to say for sure just how big an economic boost high speed rail will provide China, but it's expected to bring radical new opportunities to the nation.  To relate in U.S. terms, high speed rail would make commutes from Detroit to Chicago, Pittsburgh and New York City feasible for those willing to spend up to a few hours of their lives a day in transit possible, opening new job opportunities.

The U.S. has some high speed rail plans of its own, but the billions put forth by the Obama administration have been dwarfed by China's commitment, as have the program's respective successes.  With the activation of the Guangzhou and Beijing bullet train conduit, one has to wonder whether we are witnessing the passing of the technological torch from the U.S. to China, and what the economic impact of that leadership transition will be.

Sources: The Washington Post, Shutterstock

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By TSS on 12/27/2012 12:44:13 PM , Rating: 4
Maybe not in the sense that the train itself makes money, but it definitly brings benifits. Business men in China would now be able to travel from one side of China to the other, do business, and be back in the same day. When you can reach a greater public to make deals, you've got more opperunity to expand.

Then when you actually expand into another part of china you just hire people locally. Those people still have no need for a high speed rail - but they now do have jobs they wouldn't have had without it. That, in turn, brings in more tax revenue which can be helped in part or maybe even in full to pay for the trains. That's why it's hard to judge it's economic impact, especially in a still developing nation as China.

As a mass transit system, no high speed rail makes sense. Rail hardly makes sense, depends way too much on population density. Trams or Monorails would be a far more efficient mass transit for within a city (using bicyles for even shorter distances), then use massive airplanes for longer distances between population centers and cars for the rest.

But as a transit for the middle and upper class, it beats airplane flights in comfort.

By dsx724 on 12/27/2012 12:46:27 PM , Rating: 2
Except the flight is 3 hours and the "fast" train ride is 8. I'd take the flight in first class please.

By dsx724 on 12/27/2012 12:48:31 PM , Rating: 2
Did I mention the flight ticket is only $120?

By RufusM on 12/27/2012 1:25:14 PM , Rating: 3
I suspect using a train versus plane has to do with the sheer numbers of people they are moving.

China has different needs than the US for transportation. I assume these trains will mainly be moving more rural people to the cities to work for a week/month/whatever then back home again for a break.

By Jeremy87 on 12/27/2012 1:42:50 PM , Rating: 2
3 hours plus 1 hour to get to/from the airport, 1 hour waiting for liftoff preparations etc.
Trains may still take more time for extreme distances, but they are more convenient, and later in the article they are looking to double the train speed once more.

By danjw1 on 12/27/2012 6:03:53 PM , Rating: 5
3 hour flight? I guess you aren't flying in the western world. Haven't you heard of TSA? While they have started smaller footprints for train and bus travel, it isn't anything like Airplane security. 3 hour flight and having to be at the airport 2 hours early to be sure you can actually get to and on the plane in time, makes it a 5 hour flight. And First Class? Sure if you are a CEO at a major corporation, but most travel business class at best. After all, employee comfort has to be second to those quarterly reports.

By yomamafor1 on 12/28/2012 4:04:58 PM , Rating: 2
You forgot the 1.5 hour to get through the security line, 1 hour to disembark and get your luggage, 1 hour to argue with the customer service for lost luggage, and 6 hours of having nothing to wear.

Oh, that is assuming your flight isn't delayed for 1~2 hours or cancelled outright, forcing you to sleep in the airport.

I think high speed trains are like SSDs. You just don't know what you're missing out on until you've actually experienced it.

By nafhan on 12/27/2012 3:12:00 PM , Rating: 1
But as a transit for the middle and upper class, it beats airplane flights in comfort.
...and for only a trillion dollars, too!

Where rail really shines from an economic perspective is for transporting freight, and for that, speed is usually less important than cost.

I also think that before long self driving cars will cancel out a lot of the other benefits of passenger rail travel (primarily being able to do things other than drive during your commute).

By PrinceGaz on 12/28/2012 4:19:39 PM , Rating: 2
Self driving cars? For high speed journeys of hundreds of miles? That seems like a crazy answer.

Rail is unbeatable for transporting large loads of freight over land as happens in the US.

Rail is also extremely good at transporting large numbers of passengers very quickly over distances of hundreds of miles as happens across much of western Europe, as well as China now. Japan realised that decades ago.

For long distances air travel will always be quicker than rail (though by an ever reducing amount unless a replacement for Concorde is developed), but rail is always going to be a lot cheaper to run than the equivalent plane journey, which makes a long distance rail journey (perhaps overnight asleep) a better option than several hours on a cramped plane.

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