China Advances High-Speed Rail Amid Concerns

For National Geographic, Ian Johnson takes stock of the current situation of China’s high-speed rail network and the many issues involved with its further development:

The project symbolizes China’s 21st-century aspirations: High-speed trains are a national priority for China, with 10,000 miles (160,000 kilometers) of lines due to link 24 cities by 2020. Since the program got under way in 2007, half of the lines have been built, with another major north-south artery the length of the country set to open later this year. It’s an engineering blitzkrieg meant to awe the Chinese people and show off the nation’s new industrial might.

Less impressive have been the costs—financial and human. Last year two events happened that continue to shake the railway system and China as a whole. One was the detention of China’s once powerful railway minister, Liu Zhijun, an old-style communist central planner who rolled out the high-speed network like a general using human-wave tactics.

Thousands of work teams were deployed to blast open mountains, bridge gullies, and pave over the countryside. But investigations show that Liu’s methods were based on massive corruption, and he himself is accused of graft and “sexual misconduct.”

The other event that has caused a broader rethink of China’s development path was a terrifying crash of two high-speed trains last year near the city of Wenzhou. The crash has come to symbolize the ruling Communist Party’s development-at-all-costs strategy. One commentator said on national television that China was “leaving the souls of the people behind.” As one crash survivor told me: “Where is happiness? Is it only in statistics and numbers?”

The article is accompanied by a slideshow of photos by Michael Yamashita. Read more about high-speed trains and the train crash in Wenzhou in 2011 via CDT.