Despite sacking two senior rail officials China’s high-speed rail program has not fixed its safety issues. A section of railway collapsed in China’s Hubei province following heavy rains. It is expected to take at least one month to repair the section. While state media initially claimed that the problem affected only 1,000 feet of track, government officials now admit that 4.3 miles of track will need to be replaced. While the tracks had been built to tolerate a sinking of as much as 3 millimeters, the foundation for the train tracks sank 3.33 to 4.22 millimeters.
The railway section had already undergone test runs and was supposed to open in less than two months. While heavy rains are the official cause of the incident, other reports indicate construction methods on another section of the line, including the substitution of soil for rocks in the railway bed is the real cause. While the section sunk last week, state media did not reveal any information until this week.
This is the latest in a series of incidents for high-speed rail in China. In one instance, according to The Washington Post, almost all of a $260 million railway line in northeast China had to be redone after bridge foundations were filled with rocks and sand instead of concrete. Last year one bullet train rear-ended another, killing 40 people. As a result of the bullet-train crash, China is scaling back rail-expansion plans. China will spend only 400 billion yuan this year after spending 707 billion yuan in 2010 and 464 billion yuan in 2011. The high-speed rail network is scheduled to reach 16,000 kilometers by 2015.
Clearly there are still major problems with Chinese building quality. Despite last year’s dismissal of two high-level governmental officials, corruption is still prevalent. According to The New York Times, Contractors working for the ministry say they are regularly squeezed by officials who pocket money intended for construction. One contractor claimed he was forced to cut corners on building materials to make a profit.
There are two takeaways for the U.S. First, it does not matter how much money a country spends if the infrastructure does not last. In one of the most popularly-quoted lines the U.S. spends 2.4% of its GDP on infrastructure, Europe 5% and China almost 10%. And what has China received for that 10%? It has some substantially richer government officials. For 2012 alone, China is forecast to spend $120 billion on new high-speed rail infrastructure. Train speeds have been reduced. Some officials have questioned whether the infrastructure is durable enough to last more than 10 years. Higher government expenditures are not buying better quality.
Second, high-speed rail creates its own constituency groups. The money that the Chinese government is spending on high-speed rail is as much to enrich government officials as it is to provide transportation options. Many average Chinese residents cannot afford the high-speed rail and instead rely on conventional trains. But Chinese officials cannot make money by maintaining traditional train tracks. While the U.S. would not have the corruption of the Chinese system, there are parallels in California’s high-speed rail plans. Similar to China, there has been no groundswell of residents demanding high-speed rail. Similar to China certain government officials including U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and California Governor Jerry Brown have a dogmatic vision of high-speed rail divorced from reality. And similar to China, cost escalations are a problem. While the train crashes in China could most likely never happen in the U.S. there are several disturbing parallels.