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The Steps to China’s High-Speed Rail Capability Provide a Lesson to the United States

June 19, 2019 (EIRNS)—Engineering.com’s June 14 story, “How China’s High-Speed Rail Zooms Past Other Countries,” has a very useful tip for getting out of the morass which currently passes for transportation in the United States. It implies that a partnership, or at least a consultancy, between the two countries for the improvement of American rail transportation, would be to the benefit of both.

Americans are not, despite many claims, “addicted” to driving their cars and trucks: they drive them everywhere because making the same trips is relatively so slow, expensive, and unreliable by rail, by bus, and even by air for trips of 300-500 miles, or less. Labor and Transportation Department data show that it is faster to drive a car—or when carrying freight, a truck—on just about any trip, from a city mile, to many hundreds of miles across the country.

China, by contrast, has over 12,000 miles of high-speed rail, and heading toward an 18,000-mile target, which travels at 200-300 kph (120-180 mph). But China did not build any of this HSR until 2004, well over a decade after making the first plans to do so in 1990. It did not have the industrial capacity or capability to do so. Writes Engineering.com, “In the meantime, the country began improving its railways via the ‘Speed-Up’ campaign, so that they could handle speeds that would increase from 48 kph (30 mph) to 160 kph (100 mph).” The trains, not the workforce, were sped up—first by improvement in track and locomotives, and then during the second half of the 1990s, by electrification of existing lines. This allowed using faster electric traction, built into the trainset rather than just a locomotive. “The first HSR line was developed from the Guangzhou-Shenzhen Railway, which was kicked up to 160 kph (99 mph) in 1994, as the first sub-HSR line using diesel trains.”

In addition to electrifying existing lines, trainsets were initially acquired from French, German and Japanese trainset manufacturers, then developed in China through technology transfer. Existing rail lines were progressively double-tracked, using new ballastless track technology, allowing for mixed use between freight and passengers to be separated and true high-speed passenger rail (200-300 kph) to be developed.

By the same step-wise process, a capability for magnetic levitation (maglev) lines began to be developed in China, the first country to do so.

If the United States is to acquire relatively fast and reliable rail transport, for freight, and for passenger travel up to the distance that requires going by air, it will have to follow the same steps. This has really taken China 25 years, not the one decade often cited; but with China’s technology input, the United States might do it faster.

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