Why the U.S. Will Not Get China's High Speed Rail

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Yesterday, we rode the high speed rail from Hangzhou to Shanghai.  It took 45 minutes to go about 110 miles, and the ride was smoother than any US form of transportation.  At dinner last night, the Chinese, justifiably proud, asked what we had thought.


"I want it!" said one of my companions.

Unfortunately, I don't think we're going to get it.  To see why, compare the map of the 10 biggest cities in China:


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With the map of the 10 biggest cities in the US:


Screen shot 2010-11-21 at 7.32.05 PM.png
San Francisco-LA, the route my fellow journalist wanted to travel, isn't even on this map; the Bay Area MSA only has about 4 million people in it.  By contrast, the smallest city on the Chinese map has a population over 5 million, and that's considerably understated, because I used just the population of the city, not the outlying areas that might conceivably drive in to use the HSR.

The longest trip between the major cities on the Chinese map is just slightly longer than the DC-Chicago trip would be.  It's no coincidence that the only place we have anything that could even be arguably dubbed HSR is the one area where four cities are pretty tightly clustered together.  And that doesn't go very fast because it uses existing rights of way, and because the politicians that fund it like to have it make stops in their city.  (Q:  Why does the Acela stop in Wilmington, Delaware, which is a quick drive from Philadelphia?  A:  Because Joe Biden likes to ride it.)  Stops are the enemy of speed.

Moreover, the Chinese government does not have to worry unduly about things like environmental impact and acquiring the right of way.  For truly high speed rail, you need a long straightaway with few curves or inclines.  That means it's very important to lay the rail in the best possible path, or near it.  Trying to do this between, say, New York and Chicago would mean approximately a century of court battles with homeowners, environmental groups, local NIMBYs, and sundry others.  Moreover, many desirable routes are occupied by our enormous network of highways, and only someone with a very rich fantasy life could believe that we are going to rip out the highways to put in a rail network.

I know--carbon emissions!  The environment! Don't we eventually have to deal with these problems?

Sure. But high speed rail is less of an environmental gain than regular rail; it takes a lot of energy to move that fast.  One can argue that because it is more attractive than regular rail, it is still a bigger environmental gain, because more people will switch from planes to trains.  

This is only true, however, if the trains travel very full; moving empty cars is not environmentally sound.  The problem is that for trains to be an attractive alternative to planes, they need to travel fairly frequently.  China can do this (arguably) because they have a large number of high-population cities that are very close to each other.  We do not.

Viewed from a purely technological perspective, America's high speed rail is an embarrassment compared to China's:  shaky, slow, and not particularly sleek.  But viewed in another way, our slow rail network is the price for a lot of great things about America:  our limits on government power, our democratic political system, and the fact that we're already rich enough to have an enormous amount of existing infrastructure, in the form of houses, industrial plant, and roads, that would be very expensive to tear up in the name of building rail lines.  All in all, I think these things are more valuable than even a really cool train system.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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