China's High Speed Rail System Has First Major Accident

With all the other horrible events of the weekend, China's high speed rail crash sort of faded into the background.  But the toll is horrific: 43 dead, and hundreds more injured after one high speed train ran into another.  Critics, such as Michael Sainsbury of The Australian, are now arguing that this is the result of cut corners in the construction process:

A picture is beginning to emerge of a network that has been built to unrealistic and politically driven timetables, using a mix of technologies that were given little time to be properly integrated.

A two-year-old girl found alive in the wreckage 21 hours after the high-speed crash may need to have a leg amputated, it was reported yesterday.

Chinese media have suggested that work on the line where the accident occurred was rushed.

"The hugeness and urgency of the project is unprecedented for CRSC (a contractor for the ministry). Such a complicated project needed to be finished in eight months. It is an extremely severe challenge to the company," the 21st Century Business Herald quoted the Peoples Rail Paper (the ministry's official paper) in May 2009.

China's decision to build a $400 billion, 16,000 km high speed rail network in the space of a few years was initially greeted with awe at their commitment to winning the future, and laments from the usual suspects that America could never do something this fantabulous.  Then the network was forced to slow the average speed of its bullet trains down due to safety concerns; lower-than-projected ridership caused big deficits; and the head of the rail ministry was removed in a tawdry corruption scandal.

While I was in China last year, I wrote:

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.

Now that the really cool train system seems to be maybe slightly deadly, I feel this more strongly than ever.  Among a lot of commentators there's a sort of mythos of the technocratic autocracy, envisioning a government that is able to do bold, exciting things to advance the economy along the most modern and scientific lines, while democracies are held back by the piddling whims of reactionary voters.  William Easterly has a paper on this, which he calls the "Benevolent Autocrat" story. (You can listen to him talking about it here).  The evidence that benevolent autocrats cause economic growth (as opposed to coincidentally being around when it happens) is pretty thin.  But the story appeals to the instinctive human belief in agency--that sufficiently good planning will always trump random chance.

But as Easterly points out, autocracy is not a cure for compromise, much less corruption.  Autocrats are not accountable the way that democratic leaders are, but that doesn't mean that they can just do "the best thing" if only they are benevolent enough.  Autocrats have to maintain power, which means they have to buy off their supporters, just like other leaders do. The difference is that there are fewer restraints on the lengths to which they can go in order to shore up their power base.

And autocracy is most definitely not a palliative for bad decision-making.  Of course it probably means that you can take a good decision further than a democracy can.  But it also means you can take bad decisions much, much further.

We don't know that this accident was caused by China's autocratic political system; even the best-run systems do occasionally have accidents.  But what's emerging from behind the shiny pictures of whizzy trains and smiling engineers is a story of overreach, corruption, and possibly disastrous construction shortcuts.  We should not lament the fact that we couldn't do anything like this here.