It was recently reported by the Shanghaiist that China is in the process of developing a high-speed rail from China to the United States via Siberia, Alaska and Canada. The trip would take two days with an average speed of 350km/hr. And this is in addition to their current plans to develop routes from China to Taiwan, India, England and two routes to Singapore!
If you are amazed by those plans, you aren’t alone.
At first glance, it would seem impractical for the Chinese government to invest in such enormous rail projects when it would be much easier to simply fly over the Pacific Ocean. However, as weird a transportation plan as these concepts may initially seem, the projects actually have some merit. First of all, China loves high-speed rail trains and for a good reason – they are pretty fantastic!
During my time there, I frequently traveled by train and I was impressed at how smoothly the trains ran. Most routes run several times per hour and the schedules are accurate to the minute for both arrival and departure, giving you the ability to plan your trip with some flexibility. Furthermore, the trains are clean and passenger fares are subsidized by the government – which keeps the fares relatively inexpensive – in an attempt to increase ridership. With the longest route from Beijing to Guangzhou spanning just 10 hours, the trains have greatly increased mobility across the country.
This paints a stark comparison to China’s consumer air industry. Delays of several hours are the norm in China, making it difficult to accurately plan your schedule. Also, unlike Canada and its two main airlines, China’s air industry is highly saturated with several carriers, with one carrier, essentially, based in every major city. In this highly competitive market, which faces further pressure from rail emerging alternatives, the airlines have had to charge low airfares for domestic flights to compete.
Furthermore, some have become fiscally troubled, with several posting quarterly net losses. Does this matter to the consumer? Probably not, but it may be part of the reason why the government seems to prefer investing in rail instead of air. As for the consumer – although we see on the news that the middle class is rapidly expanding – the average monthly income in Shanghai is still between $1,000 – $3,000 CAD. At these wages, it is impractical for most to fly over the Pacific Ocean, especially if you consider that flying with a family of three from Shanghai to Vancouver could easily cost more than $1,500 CAD.
As the high speed rail trains take less fuel, they are much cheaper to operate and have a higher passenger capacity. This makes it is likely that the proposed China-US rail fares would be a small fraction of current airfare, leading to the significant potential to increase tourism on both sides.Keep in mind that this doesn”t take the commercial industry into consideration yet, which would be incredible based on the amount of trade that occurs across the Pacific Ocean.
My Final Thoughts: While the idea of building a high speed rail route from China to the US may seem absurd to us in North America, it may be because we are not exposed enough to this mode of transportation. While there will be several challenges with developing this route – such as technical complexity and a host of security issues that will need to be resolved as the route crosses three national border – it is not entirely surprising that the Chinese government would be interested in developing this route. If nothing else, this could be a decade-long project to boost declining growth in the Chinese GDP, with huge potential upside.
Would you ride the high-speed rail train if the trip cost a couple hundred dollars round trip compared to the $1,500 airfare? Let me know in the comments below and your thoughts on this plan.