A very interesting story in this morning’s New York Times about how China’s new train system is transforming the country. Read the complete story here, and read some of the story’s choice paragraphs down below.
“CHANGSHA, China — The cavernous rail station here for China’s new high-speed trains was nearly deserted when it opened less than four years ago. Not anymore. Practically every train is sold out, although they leave for cities all over the country every several minutes. Just five years after China’s high-speed rail system opened, it is carrying nearly twice as many passengers each month as the country’s domestic airline industry. With traffic growing 28 percent a year for the last several years, China’s high-speed rail network will handle more passengers by early next year than the 54 million people a month who board domestic flights in the United States.
Li Xiaohung, a shoe factory worker, rides the 430-mile route from Guangzhou home to Changsha once a month to visit her daughter. Ms. Li used to see her daughter just once a year because the trip took a full day. Now she comes back in 2 hours 19 minutes. Business executives like Zhen Qinan, a founder of the stock market in coastal Shenzhen, ride bullet trains to meetings all over China to avoid airport delays. The trains hurtle along at 186 miles an hour and are smooth, well-lighted, comfortable and almost invariably punctual, if not early.
China’s high-speed rail system has emerged as an unexpected success story. Economists and transportation experts cite it as one reason for China’s continued economic growth when other emerging economies are faltering. But it has not been without costs — high debt, many people relocated and a deadly accident. The corruption trials this summer of two former senior rail ministry officials have cast an unfavorable light on the bidding process for the rail lines.
The high-speed rail lines have, without a doubt, transformed China, often in unexpected ways. For example, Chinese workers are now more productive. A paper for the World Bank by three consultants this year found that Chinese cities connected to the high-speed rail network, as more than 100 are already, are likely to experience broad growth in worker productivity. The productivity gains occur when companies find themselves within a couple of hours’ train ride of tens of millions of potential customers, employees and rivals.
“What we see very clearly is a change in the way a lot of companies are doing business,” said Gerald Ollivier, a World Bank senior transport specialist in Beijing. Productivity gains to the economy appear to be of the same order as the combined economic gains from the usual arguments given for high-speed trains, including time savings for travelers, reduced noise, less air pollution and fuel savings, the World Bank consultants calculated.
China relocated large numbers of families whose homes lay in the path of the tracks and quickly built new residential and commercial districts around high-speed train stations. The new districts, typically located in inner suburbs, not downtown areas, have rapidly attracted large numbers of residents, partly because of China’s rapid urbanization. Enough farm families become city dwellers each year to fill New York City, part of a trend visible during a series of visits to the Changsha high-speed train station over the last four years.
Another impact: air travel. Train ridership has soared partly because China has set fares on high- speed rail lines at a little less than half of comparable airfares and then refrained from raising them. On routes that are four or five years old, prices have stayed the same as blue-collar wages have more than doubled. That has resulted in many workers, as well as business executives, switching to high-speed trains.”