Barack Obama has spent the past two years scolding Americans on our lack of progress on high-speed rail, using China as a yardstick — or more appropriately, a ruler with which to rap our knuckles. Almost exactly two years ago, Obama announced his intention to spend tens of billions of dollars in catching up to China and Europe in subsidizing the rail lines and systems for high-speed transport. “My high-speed rail proposal will lead to innovations that change the way we travel in America,” Obama said in April 2009, saying of China that it “may have more miles of high-speed rail service than any other country just five years from now.”
Or maybe not, as the Washington Post’s Charles Lane reports after his trip to see the project first-hand. The vaunted high-speed rail project pushed by Beijing has collapsed into a morass of embezzlement and failure.
Even with substandard materials and shoddy construction, the system faces annual shortfalls of billions of dollars. Now the system runs a lot slower, although the price isn’t likely to decline, and bus service will look better and better to the working class the high-speed rail was supposed to serve. The pricing is why the train services mainly the wealthy and foreigners even with the massive subsidies for its operation.
For the record, the $271 billion sinkhole exceeds our government’s cost of taking over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and we have an annual GDP around three times larger than China’s.
But hey, the trains still run on time, don’t they? Not exactly:
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.