High-speed rail in China.


Lots has been made of the “moral” differences between our culture and that of the Chinese. So it goes, we make moral distinctions when working towards a goal and they’ll do whatever it takes. The classic example always given is of a manager asking an employee to hit a certain sales number; he’ll hit the number, but only by giving out crazy kick-backs and getting his family to buy and return the goods. I certainly don’t want to generalize, but this model seems to be extremely true with the much lauded high-speed rail in China.
It all sounds amazing… being somewhat afraid of flying, remembering how cool it sounded when the high-speed train was approved by California voters  in 2008 (despite the fact that it is now further bankrupting the state), bopping all over the massive country of China at half the speed of a plane for much less hassle and expense. Riding the Shinkansen in Japan is such a comfortable thrill. But, I’m not getting on a Chinese high-speed train anytime soon. From the NYTimes:

“As expensive as it is ($85 billion), China’s high-speed rail network has been built far more cheaply than similar projects in the West and in Japan. A mile of rail here costs roughly $15 million; in the United States, estimates peg the price at anywhere between $40 million to $80 million. Japanese officials have already made an issue of the potential safety problems in the Chinese high-speed rail network. Yoshiyuki Kasai, the chairman of the Central Japan Railway Company, which runs Japan’s fastest bullet train, told The Financial Times last year that the Chinese were running trains based on Japan’s designs, but at speeds 25 percent faster.”

And, actually they’re not even running that fast because of major safety concerns. China’s beleaguered Railway Ministry announced Monday that their flagship Beijing to Shanghai route will be running not at 236 mph, but between 186 and 155. That’s as much as 35% slower. It was supposed to cut the train time between the two most visited cities in China from 10 to 5 hours.

It turns out that they cut every corner they could was cut in the building of this train. The biggest problem being with fly ash:

“The problem lies in the use of high-quality fly ash, a fine powder chemically identical to volcanic ash, collected from the chimneys of coal-fired power plants. When mixed with cement and gravel, it can give the tracks’ concrete base a lifespan of 100 years.

According to a study by the First Survey and Design Institute of China Railways in 2008, coal-fired power plants on the mainland could produce enough high-quality fly ash for the construction of 100 kilometres of high-speed railway tracks a year.

But more than 1,500 kilometres of track have been laid annually for the past five years. This year 4,500 kilometres of track will be laid with the completion of the world’s longest high-speed railway line, between Beijing and Shanghai. Fly ash required for that 1,318-kilometre line would be more than that produced by all the coal-fired power plants in the world.”

So as you can imagine, this means they were using fillers instead of the real stuff. After this came out in January, the rails minister, Liu Zhijun (one of the biggest government posting’s), was fired on corruption and mismanagement charges.

Other issues with the train is that it is too expensive for the average Chinese person. One trip from Beijing to Shanghai costs $63 US, which is the monthly average wage in China.

Despite how wrong things have gone with their high-speed rail, China announced yesterday that it is still planning to take its rail abroad, most recently to Laos.

By the numbers:

150mph: Speed of the Acela Express, although it averages half that
186mph: Shinkansen top speed
199mph: Speed of France’s TGV
230mph: Formula One car record
268mph: World record for conventional rail (held by the Japanese experimental MLX01)
268mph: Commercial speed world record (on the Shanghai Maglev, thanks to ‘Magnetic Levitation’
311mph: Non-commercial speed world record (also on the Maglev)
511mph: crusing speed AB320
537 mph: max speed AB320
550mph: 747 cruising speed
570mph: 747 max speed
587mph: A380 cruising
634mph: A380 max

By the way, I think the trains are strangely beautiful. What do you think?

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