Can California Learn from China's High-Speed Rail System?

California's high-speed rail project suffers another blow as federal cuts threaten its future. Can a trip to China help legislators put the project on the right track?
by | August 3, 2011

There seems to be no end to the hiccups in California’s $43-billion high-speed rail project. Last week, an internal report determined that ridership and revenue projections were overstated. Jeffrey Barker, executive officer for communications, policy and public outreach at the California High-Speed Rail Authority, announced his departure. And federal cuts threaten the future of the ambitious project, the Sacramento Bee reports.

"If you were to look at this Congress, you'd have to say it will be cutting high-speed rail," noted Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Gold River, in the Bee, who is one of several congressional Republicans not keen on the idea of pumping more federal funds into the high-speed rail.

For guidance on building a high-speed rail system, a group of California lawmakers has gone to China. But does this trip make sense? Last month, when two Chinese bullet trains collided, at least 39 people were killed and 200 were injured. Granted, the senators were reportedly invited by the Chinese Ministry of Railways (travel expenses paid for), so maybe they’ll learn valuable lessons on what not to do. Per an editorial in the Kansas City Star:

Beijing is now looking into corruption charges against officials who may have funneled work to friendly contractors. Their work may not have been up to standard. Too hastily, China attempted to integrate rail technology from countries such as Japan, Germany, France and Canada. Critics say more time should have been invested in test runs before passengers were allowed aboard.

The usual suspects have been fired and now a different face of China is reasserting itself. This is the China that tries to suppress bad news, be it earthquakes, famines or disease, as in the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, eight years ago. Much of the reporting of the train wreck, which injured more than 200, has been blocked. Reporters have been barred from the accident site.

The initial story was that lightning stalled the first train, but some experts have raised doubts. Vukan R. Vuchic of the University of Pennsylvania told The New York Times he had never heard of such a case. Even if it's possible, he added, the lightning strike should have also shut down "everything else."

The Chinese ministry planned to provide a demonstration about how the high-speed rail system functions. In an ideal world, the Californians will also learn how to deal with some of the other structural issues, namely staffing. Both supporters and opponents agree that the California project, at the present moment, is “woefully understaffed,” according to the Bakersfield Californian. The ratio between administrative personnel to private contractors is "so out of balance" that the project could miss critical deadlines, the article noted. And some critics aren’t sure if these problems can be solved by outsourcing, especially given the number of functions already outsourced, such as financial analysis, environmental review and community outreach.

As shadows of doubt continue to hover over the state’s high-speed project, the visit to China couldn’t have come at a better time. But will this field trip help lawmakers figure out how to save the project? Or are the federal cuts, resignations, understaffing issues and experts calling for projections to be conservative all signs pointing to the end of the line? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Correction appended August 4: An earlier version of this article had an incorrect title. It should be "Can California Learn from China's High-Speed Rail System?" Thanks to Carter Willhelm for his comment; Governing regrets the error.