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China’s train wreck

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For the past eight years, Liu Zhijun was one of the most influential people in China. As minister of railways, Liu ran China’s $300 billion high-speed rail project. U.S., European and Japanese contractors jostled for a piece of the business while foreign journalists gushed over China’s latest high-tech marvel.

Today, Liu Zhijun is ruined, and his high-speed rail project is in trouble. On Feb. 25, he was fired for “severe violations of discipline” — code for embezzling tens of millions of dollars. Seems his ministry has run up $271 billion in debt — roughly five times the level that bankrupted General Motors. But ticket sales can’t cover debt service that will total $27.7 billion in 2011 alone. Safety concerns also are cropping up.

Faced with a financial and public relations disaster, China put the brakes on Liu’s program. On April 13, the government cut bullet-train speeds 30 mph to improve safety, energy efficiency and affordability. The Railway Ministry’s tangled finances are being audited. Construction plans, too, are being reviewed.

Liu’s legacy, in short, is a system that could drain China’s economic resources for years. So much for the grand project that Thomas Friedman of the New York Times likened to a “moon shot” and that President Obama held up as a model for the United States.

Rather than demonstrating the advantages of centrally planned long-term investment, as its foreign admirers sometimes suggested, China’s bullet-train experience shows what can go wrong when an unelected elite, influenced by corrupt opportunists, gives orders that all must follow — without the robust public discussion we would have in the states.

The fact is that China’s train wreck was eminently foreseeable. High-speed rail is a capital-intensive undertaking that requires huge borrowing upfront to finance tracks, locomotives and cars, followed by years in which ticket revenue covers debt service — if all goes well. “Any . . . shortfall in ridership or yield, can quickly create financial stress,” warns a 2010 World Bank staff report.

Such “shortfalls” are all too common. Japan’s bullet trains needed a bailout in 1987. Taiwan’s line opened in 2007 and needed a government rescue in 2009. In France, only the Paris-Lyon high-speed line is in the black.

This history counseled caution about introducing bullet trains in China, where the typical passenger was still a migrant worker, not a businessman rushing to a meeting. To be sure, there was an economic case to be made for upgrading China’s lumbering rail system: It would free up limited rail capacity for freight trains, thus reducing truck traffic on congested roads. Beijing’s initial feasibility studies envisioned the gradual introduction of trains that would move at a maximum 125 mph, according to Caixin, the Chinese economic magazine.

But Liu Zhijun — part Cornelius Vanderbilt, part Sammy Glick — took over the rail ministry in March 2003 and urged officials to aim for speeds above 200 mph. “Seize the opportunity, build more railways, and build them fast,” he wrote.

Liu exploited the communist leadership’s fascination with bigness and national prestige. Among the benefits he promised was a chance to squeeze foreign companies for bullet-train technology so that China could build and export its own. What happened next suggests that he — and others — also saw the potential for graft in such a vast undertaking.

In 2004, the State Council signed off on Liu’s plan to build the world’s largest high-speed-rail network by 2020. The first leg, a 72-mile stretch between Beijing and Tianjin, would open in time for the 2008 Olympics.

Word went forth that state-owned banks and local governments were to give Liu all the money, land and labor he required. When Chinese journalists found that Liu’s ministry was using cheap, low-quality concrete, creating a safety hazard, the Communist Party’s propaganda department quashed the reports, according to a January piece in the South China Morning Post.

Students and other humble citizens greeted the first fast trains with complaints about high ticket prices. They crowded aboard buses instead. According to a recent report in China Daily, the government was forced to deploy 70,000 extra buses during the Chinese New Year celebrations in February.

This month, I rode the bullet train from Beijing to Tianjin in half an hour — then returned by bus, which took two hours. Next to me on the decrepit, but packed, vehicle was a 17-year-old girl migrating to Beijing to search for work. She had never heard of the high-speed train, but when informed it cost $9, as opposed to $5.40 for the bus, expressed no regret at missing it. The bus driver assured me the girl was typical of his working-class clientele; to them, even a little money is more valuable than a lot of time. Small wonder that the Beijing-Tianjin line, built at a cost of $46 million per mile, is losing more than $100 million per year.

Meanwhile, in the United States, Obama’s high-speed rail plan, originally set at $53 billion over six years, has gotten a thorough democratic vetting. Three freshly elected Republican governors spurned federal dollars for high-speed rail, fearing a long-term burden on their budgets; homeowners in liberal Northern California are fighting construction through their neighborhoods; and the president agreed with Congress to trim current-year spending as part of a budget deal.

On the whole, I’d say China should envy us.

Charles Lane is a member of the editorial page staff. Yale Law School supported his travel to China to participate in a conference on media law issues co-sponsored by Yale Law School’s China Center and two Chinese Schools of Journalism.

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