Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A brief history of Chinese High Speed Rail

Damien Ma at the Atlantic describes the "long, bumpy road to high-speed rail" in China. Apparently there is now domestic criticism of the HSR projects. Here is how Ma sums up the process so far:
The out-sized victor in this debate also happened to have thrown caution to the wind, and strategically seized opportunities to push for his bureaucratic agenda, in the process probably enriching himself and his network of clients who got favors. Other such examples exist, and occasionally, a big fish gets fried and people get the message.

The victor who Ma refers to is Liu Zhijun, disgraced former railway minister. After Liu was fired, Ma explains, China is left with this:
Liu's departure left in its wake unanswered questions. Is the Ministry of Railway now weighed down by debt (reportedly at some $260 billion as of 2010, according to the piece)? Most of the debt is supposed to be in the form of long-term bonds. And can the ministry grow out of its debt if/when the new rail lines become profitable? Not sure. As of 2009, freight lines seem more profitable than passenger (in bottom graph, the dark blue bar shows passenger profits and the middle column shows freight). A more sanguine view holds that the debt burden may eventually force the rail ministry to execute substantial reforms, perhaps further commercializing the state enterprises it currently controls so that they operate in more competitive and economically-minded fashion.

It is worth reading Ma's piece for illuminating background on Chinese HSR.

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