At Foreign Policy, author of Train: Riding the Rails That Created the Modern World — From the Trans-Siberian to the Southwest Chief Tom Zoellner discusses the shortcomings of “China’s extraordinary high-speed train enterprise”:
Shrinking commute times are expanding the horizons of where employees can live and, as railroads always do, are boosting the value of land near train stations. Although some lines have struggled to find their customers, total ridership has been relatively healthy thus far: about 1.3 million people — roughly a quarter of Chinese rail users — climb aboard each day. Airlines have had to cut routes because of lost business.
But building so much in such a short period has necessitated dangerous shortcuts. Thousands of miles of track may not be up to international design standards. Forty passengers died in an accident that revealed a culture of deep-set and spectacular corruption, involving the embezzlement of millions of dollars. And the half-trillion-dollar enterprise rests on financing so shaky that work ground to a crawl in 2011, when the ministry responsible for the project couldn’t service its debt or pay hundreds of millions of dollars in bills — requiring Beijing’s direct intervention. The state-owned group building roughly half of the rail encountered the very same problem in the fall of 2013, when it ran out of cash. In January, the company’s president “accidentally” fell to his death from the window of his Shanghai apartment.
The decision to radically accelerate rail is one manifestation of Beijing’s effort to push breathless economic growth through massive infrastructure projects. The goal has been to make China a “moderately prosperous society” by 2020. But, today, the rail project’s underlying financial dysfunction is representative of much broader and deeper flaws in China’s overall economic strategy.
[…] Rail construction in China has often been marked by this bizarre melding of the superfast and the primitive. The crews called up on short notice are little more than human shovel brigades, without even basic machinery like bulldozers. “There’s not much mechanical equipment on those job sites,” Moorlag said. “They have people, and people are cheaper.” Struck by the simple country muscle of this large-scale construction project, he documented the efforts in a photo album, which shows workers hauling flagstones by hand and pouring wet concrete out of handcarts. [Source]