China’s Rail High Speed Takes a Back Seat

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Nearly 800,000 people ride on China’s high-speed rail network each day.  The high-speed rail lines, dubbed the China Rail High Speed (CRH), now extend over 9,600 km.  It’s already the largest network of high-speed rail lines in the world, and by 2012 it is projected to have more high-speed rail lines in operation than the rest of the world combined.

Despite the unrivaled reach of this extensive network—often referred to as the world’s largest public works project—many passengers will be eyeing the railway with a touch of reluctance in the weeks and months ahead.  The July 24th crash in Zhejiang has caused a ripple effect among the Chinese.  Its consequences have given pause to nearly everyone from the casual rider to the government’s bullish forecast on the train and its future.

The train has encountered hiccups in the recent past, with the head of China’s railway ministry being dismissed earlier this year on charges of corruption.  But the underlying fear behind the alleged corruption of railway officials might have been the looming threat of shoddy construction.  Now it has become apparent just what the toll might be for turning a blind eye towards safety in the name of unhindered progress.

The high-speed rail experiment, which lies at the heart of China’s push for infrastructure and public works, was once the marquis project for Beijing’s government.  Billions of dollars have been invested, and many developed countries were watching China’s breakneck development of high-speed rail with awe.

While the government was obviously keen on the prospects for high-speed rail and what it might deliver to the Chinese people, the attitudes of people in other arenas can provide a glimpse into the future.

The food industry in China has been gripped by continuous scandals for nearly a decade now, and as a result many well-to-do Chinese are branching out from the establishment.  Many middle-class urban residents have opted to join small farming cooperatives rather than rely on what they find in the supermarket.  This return to the soil has citizens “juggling iPhones with spades,” as the BBC report so succinctly put it.  The juxtaposition of status and self-reliance in the farming co-op trend could forecast the middle-class reaction to concerns over rail safety.

If Beijing was counting on the CRH to provide unfettered mobility to the masses, then they have justifiably embarked on a lightning fast public relations campaign to control the fallout from the Zhejiang crash.  Because like the many citizens with means who have been tilling the soil themselves just to ensure safe food for the dinner table, many Chinese with similar means might turn to car ownership as the only safe alternative to rail transit.  The roads in China have a significantly worse reputation than the train, even in the wake of the July 24th crash.  On the very same weekend there was a long-distance bus fire on the highway that resulted in an equal amount of deaths.  Still, as notorious as the roads are in China, many middle-class families hold fast to the dream of owning a car.  Despite high gas prices, many Chinese still list buying a car as the next inevitable household expense.  Ultimately, concerns for the environment won’t even deter most with the wish to drive in the comfort of their own cars.

What drives the allure of China’s growing auto sales may not be solely based on convenience and expedience in city life.  Now many Chinese can view having their own cars as a viable, if not necessary, escape option from the train.  Like the food industry, the CRH has seemingly fallen prey to the relentless pursuit of the bottom line and profitably at all costs.   And the Chinese response, as we’ve seen with frustrations over food safety, might lead them to shun the government’s touted trains altogether in favor of going it alone.



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