Opponents of high-speed rail (HSR) have been given a boost by news reports filtering out of China that the HSR program there is in trouble. Do they have a point or is it just opportunistic ranting to undermine a technology that conflicts with their own particular ideology?
By Mark Carter
In February this year, the Chinese Minister of Railways Liu Zhijun was dismissed following reports that he was being investigated “for severe violation of discipline” by the Communist Party's corruption watchdog, believed to be linked to alleged corruption involving contracts awarded for one of China’s many high-speed rail contracts.
Liu Zhijun is reported to have been the driving force behind the push for a rapid expansion of China’s HSR network.
An opinion piece in the Washington Post by an editorial staffer Charles Lane has seized on this, and a number of other issues, to suggest that China’s HSR program is in disarray.
Lane alleges that the Ministry of Railway has run up $27bn in debt and while his implication is that this is totally attributable to the expansion of HSR, this is certainly not clarified in the article.
Mystery surrounds stories, repeated by Lane, which state that speeds on the fastest HSR lines in China have been reduced from 350 km/h to 300 km/h since Liu Zhijun’s dismissal.
The official party line from China is that these speed reductions are for "safety" reasons, though what these specific safety issues are involved is not specified.
At the same time, official statements suggest that these speed reductions are to allow lower fares to be charged to encourage more travellers to avail themselves of HSR services in order to better recoup the high cost of investment.
Don’t worry you didn’t read incorrectly; I’m just as confused as you are, even more so when subsequent reports out of China refer to these speed reductions only applying to the yet to be opened Beijing to Shanghai line, with other lines still operating at their higher speeds.
The situation is obviously not terminal in China as test running commenced on the Beijing to Shanghai link only last week and even at reduced speeds the 5-hour journey will still offer some stiff competition to air travel with fares at around half the price.
Six years ago I took the conventional overnight train between these two cities, taking 12 hours for the 1400km journey and even back then, it far surpassed anything we have in Australia today.
Lane’s piece fails to touch on any of the positives offered by HSR with regard to alleviating congestion, reducing dependency on imported foreign oil and HSR’s superior environmental credentials.
But in the world of Lane and his ilk, such things are either unimportant or simply do not exist.
The article is obviously aimed at undermining Barack Obama’s push for HSR in the US, though Lane suggests that it represents merely robust debate, the like of which he says the Chinese are unlikely to enjoy.
While attempting to fly high the flag of democracy, the article at times borders on 1970s Cold War rhetoric and does little to promote reasoned debate on the benefits or otherwise of HSR.
The Washington Post article can be read here: www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/chinas-train-wreck/2011/04/21/AFqjRWRE_story.html
In Australia, the dissenting voices have been relatively quiet since the launch of the Federal Government’s HSR study earlier this year, although it should not be forgotten that it is only a year ago that both major parties were arguing that such a study was not required.
No doubt as stages of the HSR study begin to be released these voices will be raised once again with the usually cacophony of scare mongering about the cost to the public purse of such a project.
There is no doubt that a Melbourne to Sydney HSR route will be costly; rough estimates would suggest anywhere between $35bn and $50bn and it is unlikely that the government's hope of private sector investment in the below rail infrastructure will ever be met.
Some robust debate will be required.
A start on construction probably a decade away and costs to be amortised over five to 10 years, but these points will largely be lost upon the dissenters even if government chooses to go for a Newcastle to Sydney option as a first stage.
The inability of the dissenters to embrace any kind of vision for a project that may yet be 20 away is a strange phenomenon.
Not so for the relatively new Victorian Government who have allocated $4m over four years for an inter-capital, high-speed rail planning unit within the Victorian Public Transport Development Authority.
While a relatively modest allocation, premier Ted Baillieu should be congratulated for taking the initiative and at least considering that some form of semi-permanent office is needed to consider and plan for an HSR future.
It will be interesting to see whether anyone will make the connection between the Federal Government’s recently announced Sustainable Australia, Sustainable Communities strategy and the potential for HSR.
The very use of the word "sustainable" would suggest that HSR would be considered as critical infrastructure to provide effective links between the suggested regional growth centres and our major cities, but sustainable thought does not always result in sustainable action.
Perhaps that is something Baillieu’s inter-capital, high-speed rail planning unit could suggest to the Federal Government?