Faithful readers know that one of my pet issues—pet peeves, really—is high-speed rail, which was the subject of one recent Examiner column and was mentioned in my most recent column Wednesday. Yes, high-speed rail might make sense in some high-density corridors connecting big cities with big downtowns, i.e., the Washington-New York-Boston corridor. But it doesn’t make much sense elsewhere. I have pointed out that, with one exception, continent-sized countries like Russia, Canada and Brazil have not contemplated building high-speed rail lines except for those that would connect their two largest metropolitan areas.
The exception, of course, is China, which is lauded by the likes of Thomas Friedman for its supposedly far-sighted program of building a network of high-speed rail lines over most of the country. Now comes Patrick Chovanec, an American who is a professor at Tsinghua University’s School of Economics and Management in Beijing, with the news that high-speed rail doesn’t make much sense in China either. mess. Key paragraph:
“The problem is that high-speed rail is expensive both to build and to operate, requiring high ticket prices to break even. The bulk of the long-distance passenger traffic, especially during the peak holiday periods, is migrant workers for whom the opportunity cost of time is relatively low. Even if they could afford a high-speed train ticket — which is doubtful given their limited incomes — they would probably prefer to conserve their cash and take a slower, cheaper train. If that proves true, the new high-speed lines will only incur losses while providing little or no relief to the existing transportation network.”
We already see this phenomenon in the United States, as I mentioned in my Wednesday column. Bargain-minded travelers don’t use the Acela express or cheaper Amtrak service from Washington to New York; they ride the somewhat slower but quite comfortable bus lines that are far cheaper. High-speed rail is an amenity for the business and professional elite; it’s not a form of mass transportation.