Why is China so good at building high speed-rail but the United States is not?




Glenn Luk, B.S. Economics & Computer Science, University of Pennsylvania

Building high-speed rail networks is more about coordination than any sort of underlying technology issues:

  • The software and signaling systems to coordinate hundreds of trains in a rail network is less sophisticated than coordinating the thousands of planes that are flying in the air at any given moment.
  • The technology to accelerate a passenger train using electricity to over 200 mph has been around for a long time. But to do it safely means building very straight tracks with wide curve radii[1].
  • The largest cost item in most high-speed rail projects is when you need to build these relatively straight lines through populated areas. Reducing land acquisition costs is all about coordination with local communities along the right-of-way.
  • Providing a good transit experience for commuters is about reducing intermodal friction costs. In other words, making the hand-off from long-haul inter-city rail to local transit networks (bus, subway, auto) as seamless as possible. Once again, this involves coordination between state and local officials.


  • 在铁路网络中协调数百列火车的软件和信号系统,复杂度肯定不及对空中飞行的数千架飞机进行协调。
  • 利用电力将旅客列车加速到每小时200英里以上的技术很久之前就出现了。但是,要安全地使用这个技术意味着要构建具有宽曲线半径的笔直的轨道[1 ]。
  • 大多数高铁项目中成本最高的部分是在人口密集地区修建这些相对笔直的轨道的时候。降低土地征用成本就要与途径的社区进行协调。
  • 为乘客提供良好的出行体验就要减少联运费用。换句话说,要将从长途城际铁路到本地公交网络(公共汽车、地铁、汽车)的切换做到尽可能无缝对接。这又涉及到国家和地方官员之间的协调。

Thus, the decision to invest a massive amount of effort and coordinate resources is really a question of economics: Do the incremental economic benefits of going through this coordination exercise outweigh the costs? And to put it bluntly, the economics of high-speed rail work in China and they don’t work as well in the U.S.

This could change in the future with technology advancements in related areas (e.g. autonomous vehicle technology, proliferation of electric vehicles) but under the current situation, this is the reality that prevails.



译文来源:三泰虎     http://www.santaihu.com/46620.html      译者:Joyceliu

In the United States, it costs a lot to build high-speed rail[2]:

  • It is expensive and time-consuming to acquire land — that is the price you pay for strong property rights.
  • Construction costs are high — that’s the price you pay for being an advanced economy with developed safety laws and regulations.
  • Topography may also play a role, depending on the region.

Assuming you can overcome these obstacles and get the rail network built, you then need to contend with the risk of low capacity utilization or ridership:

  • Population density is relatively low and even in developed areas, families seem to favor living in low-density “suburban sprawl” type development. Train station design is very different in high-density vs. low-density environments. For example, the amount of space dedicated to parking is significantly higher in suburban environments vs. urban environments.


  • 获得土地既昂贵又耗时,这是为个人拥有的强大产权而需付出的代价。
  • 建设成本很高——这是你们为成为具有发达安全法规的先进经济体而需付出的代价。
  • 地形也可能是个因素,这取决于当地情况。


  • 人口密度相对较低,即使在发达地区,人们似乎也倾向于居住在低密度社区。在人口高密度与低密度环境中,火车站的设计是非常不同的。例如,与城市环境相比,郊区用于停车的空间明显更多。


  • The most heavily trafficked and populated corridors in the U.S. are point-to-point vs. web-like networks. Think San Francisco to Los Angeles or Boston to Washington, D.C. Furthermore, the heavily populated coastal regions are separated from each other by thousands of miles of relatively sparsely populated interior. The time savings of high-speed rail tend to get overtaken by air travel around the 400 to 500-mile mark — this is why it doesn’t make much sense to build high-speed rail in Australia either[3].
  • 美国交通最拥挤、人口最多的走廊是点对点与网状网络。想想旧金山到洛杉矶或波士顿到华盛顿特区,人口稠密的沿海地区被数千英里相对稀少的内陆地区分隔开来。高铁节省的时间多数逊色于400至500英里的航空旅行——这就是为什么在澳大利亚建设高铁也没什么意义[3]。


  • Transportation alternatives are well-developed. The incremental time and convenience benefit of HSR in many situations is not that much better than the alternative.
  • 运输替代品发展良好。在许多情况下,高铁带来的增量时间和便利性效益并没有比替代方案好出太多。

Some of these factors can be solved by time and technology advancement. For example, construction techniques may improve so that it becomes easier to lay track. The country has strong demographics and robust inbound immigration and population density is rising faster than other advanced economies.


In China, it is inexpensive to build high-speed rail:

  • Land acquisition is easy under China’s authoritarian system. In China, land is ultimately owned by the State and individuals only own “land use rights”.
  • Construction costs are low — China has a large blue-collar labor pool and can leverage economies of scale — like a massive beam-launching machine that was invented for the sole purpose of laying high-speed rail track[4].
  • Topography is fairly mild in the places Chinese people have historically tended to congregate and live. This means fewer expensive bridges and tunnels that need to be built (even then, China has still had to build a massive number of these).


  • 土地征用在中国是很容易的。在中国,土地归国家所有,个人只能拥有“土地使用权”。
  • 建设成本低——中国拥有庞大的蓝领劳动力资源,能够利用规模经济——就像为铺设高铁轨道而发明的大型发射梁机一样[4]。
  • 中国人聚居的地方地形较为平缓。这意味着需要建造的昂贵的桥梁和隧道更少(但即便这样,中国仍然需要建造大量的桥梁和隧道)。

Once Chinese high-speed rail lines were built, they were heavily utilized:

  • Population density is high, especially if you exclude two-thirds of the country out west in areas that are mostly desert and mountains and thus, sparsely populated[5].
  • Chinese urban development tended to develop in a more web-like design. Web-like rail networks tend to be used more intensively, as it allows for incremental transit traffic to supplement traditional point-to-point traffic. For example, as you can see (if you squint) in the map below, Changsha has become a major transit center as it carries both North-South traffic (Guangzhou to Wuhan) and East-West traffic (to Shanghai).


  • 人口密度很高,特别是如果你把西部三分之二的地区排除在外再来计算的话,这些地区主要是沙漠和山区,因此人口稀少[5]。
  • 中国城市发展趋向于网络化设计。网络状的铁路网络会得到更密集地使用,因为它可以通过增加交通量来补充传统的点对点交通。例如,你可以在下面的地图上看到(如果你眯着眼睛),长沙已经成为一个主要的交通中心,因为它既是南北交通(广州到武汉)的枢纽,也是东西交通(至上海)的枢纽。


  • Transportation alternatives are less well-developed in still-developing China[6]. For one, fewer people own their own cars. Fewer people can afford air travel. So the cost-value proposition of high-speed rail over the closest long-haul options (e.g. bus, regular trains) is superior in many cases.
  • Intermodal friction costs are lower in China. In almost every instance, high-speed rail, local metro and local bus stations are all in the same place. I will note the huge contrast in my first experience taking a Chinese high-speed trains and switching to the subway in Nanjing[7] with the experience I have trying to transfer from the NYC Subway to the Airtrain to John F. Kennedy Airport.
  • 在发展中的中国,交通方式替代品的发展不太充分[ 6 ]。第一,很少有人拥有自己的汽车。很少有人能负担得起搭乘飞机出行。因此,在许多情况下,高铁在长途出行选项(例如公共汽车、常规列车)中,性价比无人能及。
  • 中国的联运成本较低。在几乎所有城市,高铁、地方地铁和地方公共汽车站都设在同一个地方。

I would love to see high-speed rail happen in the U.S. but it has to make economic sense. We have to remember that resources are limited, and allocating resources to one area has opportunity cost.

For example, perhaps a better use of economic resources is figuring out autonomous driving technology or taking the lead on electric vehicle technology — both of which could solve some of the issues of low-density suburban sprawl.

Perhaps once we solve autonomous driving and/or shift to a more sustainable energy strategy (solar/battery + electric vehicles), the economics of high-speed rail change such that it becomes an attractive option at that point.





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