econscius

Chicago & New York “Fall Behind” Shanghai & Beijing Without Amtrak?

In Amtrak, China, Federal Deficit, High Speed Rail, Obama Administration on July 30, 2011 at 2:51 am

Imagine increasing the population of the United States by fourfold.   Then squeeze these 1.3 billion imagined Americans into a smaller area:  the area east of the Missouri River south to the Gulf of Mexico.

Keep metro New York City in the same place with the same size metropolitan area but double the population of Staten Island. 

Keep Chicago where it is but increase its metro population by 2.5 times (from 9.5 million to 23.1 million).  Then squeeze this mega Chicago into a much smaller area about three times more densely populated than New York City.  No longer is Chicagoland sprawling but instead a tightly packed, vertical city. [1]

Next, remove most of the cars.  In fact, whereas the United States you know has nearly one car for every man, woman and child, our imagined United States would have only about one car per twenty people. [2] [3]  Take away America’s automotive culture, leaving a society where few drive but most aspire to someday drive.  Essentially, it is a lot like the United States automotive culture circa 1920.  Lastly, remove most of America’s passenger air travel. 

What we have imagined is a lot like China.  The New York -2.5X Chicago pairing is very close in actual distance and imagined densities and populations to the Beijing-Shanghai endpoints on the new Chinese high-speed railroad. 

We also need to imagine a feeder network of other high-speed trains in our imagined 1.3 billion person United States.  Imagine we obtain this extra population by plunking down an extra 200 metro San Antonios anywhere we can find space east of the Mississippi, keep our imagined Chicago of 23.1 million and supersize all other major American cities.  The Chinese municipality of Chongqing has 28.8 million people – about five times the population of metro Miami – so let’s substitute Chongqing for Miami and build a train there, too. [4]

Some believe higher speed Amtrak passenger trains are essential for the United States.  President Obama has repeatedly pushed for high-speed Amtrak, saying we will “fall behind” China if we do not.  Obama warned, “In the race for the future, America is in danger of falling behind. That’s just the truth.” [5]  The President said, “We should be able to agree now that it makes no sense for China to have better rail systems than us”.  On another occasion, Obama stated, “They’re [China] playing for first place, and we need to play for first place.” [6]

But the imagined America example above frames up how China is not like the United States.  Few Chinese can afford a car, China has few expressways and little air travel.  Many Chinese already use conventional passenger rail systems and are habituated to taking a (slow) train between cities.  China is arguably ideal for intercity passenger rail because it is much more populous than the United States and Chinese cities are closely packed along its eastern and southern seaboards and in the Yangtze River valley.   If you live in suburban Tampa and want to visit your parents in suburban Orlando, you can drive your car there in just over an hour, easily find free parking on your parent’s driveway and use your car around town.  If you lived in a Shenzen, a Chinese city of 10 million, and want to visit your parents in nearby Hong Kong, you and your parents are highly unlikely to own a car and most likely live in high-rise apartments lacking parking.  You’d have little choice but a bus or train. 

Amtrak’s Acela rides the most successful of Amtrak’s routes and it is no coincidence the Acela travels through America’s densely populated Northwest Corridor between some of the few American cities where many residents do not own cars.  Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker received much grief for canceling a proposed Milwaukee to Madison high-speed rail line due to cost concerns.  Yet, metro Madison had 561,505 residents in 2010 and metro Milwaukee had 1.6 million [7], not even remotely close to the mega-cities on China’s lines. 

Should we mimic everything China does?  China imprisons those who criticise its government!  China has a fast-growing economy and many positive attributes but the idea that China’s rail system poses a ‘threat’ the United States will “fall behind” is quite a stretch.  Western Europe is also much more densely populated than the United States, meaning the European experience with high-speed trains is not instructive for America.

China’s new rail system is hardly a total success.  It suffered cost overruns, corruption in awarding of contracts [8] [9], priced out customers with higher than expected ticket prices [10], and safety lapses such as last Saturday’s train collision that killed 39 and injured 210 people [11] [12].

Even a high-speed Amtrak proponent, Robert D. Yaro, conceded, “At an estimated $500 billion, a national high-speed rail system won’t come cheap.” [13]  At a time when the nation is suffering a debt crisis with annual budget deficits north of $1 Trillion, can we afford another half trillion for Amtrak?

In a capitalist society like the United States where a number of profitable, well-run freight railroads already run networks between all the major cities, we have to ask why Union Pacific or BNSF aren’t clamoring to do their own high-speed passenger rail trains on the tracks they already own?  If you believe large corporations will always try to make a profit, why wouldn’t CSX and Norfolk Southern be planning their own passenger rail lines if they thought the usage would justify the investment?

China administrative.svg

[1] City data includes 2,812 people/sq. mile in metro NY, 3,023/sq. mile in Beijing municipality and 9,403/sq. mile in Shanghai Municipality.  Note regions like Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia in western and northern China are sparsely populated, largely desert, arid and mountainous (e.g. Tibet 3 million people, Xinjiang 22 mil., Inner Mongolia 25 mil.)  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/China.  This link is also the source of the public domain map of China.  Shanghai Municipality population is 23.1 million http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shanghai.  Beijing Municipality 19.6 million http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beijing.  New York 18.9 million http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_york . Chicago, 9.5 million http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicago

[2] The small number of cars produced in China:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_car

[3] “Overall, there were an estimated 254.4 million registered passenger vehicles in the United States according to a 2007 DOT study.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Passenger_vehicles_in_the_United_States

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chongquing and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miami.

[5] http://abclocal.go.com/wtvd/story?section=news/local&id=7826410 

[6] http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/10_48/b4205042094905.htm

[7] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milwaukee,_Wisconsin and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madison,_Wisconsin.  These two small metros are sprawling and lack a subway to bring riders to rail hubs.

[8] “Millions of dollars in funds for China’s high-speed rail link between Beijing and Shanghai were embezzled in 2010, the state audit agency has said.  Officials said 187m yuan ($28.5m; £17.5m) had been stolen by individuals and construction companies. The judicial authorities are investigating.” http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-12828057

 [9] “Those concerns come as Beijing is investigating corruption accusations against high-ranking railway officials and allegations that some unqualified companies may have been awarded contracts for part of the $400 billion project.” http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2011-07-27/news/29820696_1_high-speed-rail-train-collision-railway-officials

[10] http://www.infrastructurist.com/2011/01/19/is-chinas-high-speed-rail-pricing-out-passengers/

[11] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/8658959/Anger-in-China-as-bodies-fall-from-carriages-during-train-crash-clean-up.html

[12] http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/27/world/asia/27china.html

[13] http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2010/10/13/will-we-ever-have-high-speed-trains/an-investment-we-have-to-make

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