I’ve been following general political and business developments in China for the past three years, and specifically looking at public transit infrastructure for about the last 18 months. I would be exaggerating if I said I had gained more than a superficial outsider’s understanding of either. At the moment, I still rely on English language reporting and translations for the vast majority of my news. It will be a huge help once I’ve gotten my reading ability to a level that I can remove that extra layer. Even so, like many industries subject to the heavy hand of government control, getting accurate, detailed and timely information about transit investment in China can frustrate even the best researchers and watchers.
As I understand it, the Ministry of Railways is one of the more powerful fiefdoms within the State Council of the People’s Republic of China. The list of people and groups to which it will bow is short. It has its own internal judicial system, though it is supposedly moving (slowly) toward unification with civilian courts. Like most government bodies in China, it does not readily reveal anything that might remotely be considered sensitive information.
The Ministry and its sub bureaus and agencies have accomplished the incredible feat of rolling out a very large and growing national network of high speed, regional and urban rail that makes the United States look like a backwater by comparison. Equally incredible are the problems that have come to light (to say nothing of the ones we don’t yet know about). Corruption and scandal have reached the highest level of the Ministry. These are contributing factors in multiple instances of shoddy work and severe safety complications. Most notable and horrifying in recent memory was the fatal July 23, 2011 high speed train collision in Wenzhou. In haste to wipe egg from its face, the Ministry ordered the damaged cars to be interred at the site (rather than being taken to a lab for intense scrutiny) and nearly buried a toddler alive in the process.
Unlike New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, I don’t think, “If we could just be China for a day…” is the solution to overcoming barriers to building world class public infrastructure in the US. In China, the government more or less gets to decide unilaterally what’s going to happen. Admittedly, it makes projects like rail easier to get up and running. But when things go wrong, the consequences can be disastrous to people and the environment. Still, where there are areas for us to learn from China it would behoove us to pay attention. We’re now the old dog who needs to learn a few new tricks.
My handful of trips between Shanghai and points in Zhejiang Province make me an expert in absolutely nothing, save perhaps techniques for not having your bag lifted while waiting in the terminal. I can tell you that, as an American, I can’t help but be a little green with envy at the sight of bright, airy platform canopies and shiny, long-nosed bullet trains. It makes coming back to the rats nest that is New York Penn Station all the more dreary.
Mei likes that she can raise and lower the window shade. I can tell because she did it 47 times.
Waiting area for north bound trains at Jinhua West Station (金华西站).
Woe is the village that finds itself in the path of a planned high speed rail line.
This new station (and most of this construction) is near Hangzhou (杭州).
Shanghai South Station (上海南站)
The onboard gift fruit vendors try to unload unsold inventory as passengers leave the train. Let the bargaining dance begin.