43 Replies to “Sunday Open Thread: Why China is so good at building railways”

  1. Before reading the article, let me guess on a few items:

    1 – Poor Labor Laws
    2-Fewer Environmental Impact Studies Needed
    3-Less Regulations
    4-Communist Government vertically controls nearly everything and can order “private” companies – at will

    1. Yes, to date, ROW issues have been killing CAHSR. Also doesn’t help that feds are suing California to return funds. Headwinds every step of the way.

    2. You actually didn’t guess the main reason the video said China is so good at building railways. You listed reasons why it might be easier for them, not why they’d be good at it. The answer is at 8:40.

    3. Those are the same. China’s lower cost makes it easier to build, and #1-4 are some of the reason for the costs. The larger benefits are explained after that point.
      (A) In eastern China it helps workers get everywhere thus improving the economy (compare Amtrak northeast corridor and adjacent commuter rail lines).
      (B) It serves the political goal of connecting the Hong Kong, Uighur, and Tibetan provinces to Beijing, and is thus a top government priority.
      (C) Its social benefits are enormous: cleaner air, worker productivity, fewer traffic deaths. China’s air pollution is worse than the US and thus a more critical problem.

      So China is better at it because it prioritizes it nationally, and it has so much experience building it now that it has become efficient at it.

    4. Comparing the U. S. to China when it comes to building high speed rail or transit systems is a lot like comparing the U. S. to Soviet Russia back in the day: a big distraction. The problem isn’t that things are more expensive in the U. S. compared to China, it is that they are more expensive in the U. S. compared to Western Europe, Central Europe, Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, Japan, South Korea, South America, and most Asian countries. It isn’t labor costs, or labor rights, or property rights, environmental concerns or a contentious electorate. Again, Norway, France and Italy build subway system that are way, way cheaper than the U. S.. If you read through posts by Alon Levy (https://pedestrianobservations.com/), you can see various examples, as well as various theories as to why it is so expensive (hint: privatization is the problem, not the solution). But it is clear that the U. S., as is the case in many respects, is simply doing it wrong.

      It is like wondering why we lead the world in incarceration rate — by a very large margin. You can break it down, and point out the various flaws (e. g. the stupid war on drugs) but what is clear is that it has done major, irreparable harm to what was once the greatest country on earth.

    5. I suspect that America’s obsession with mitigation payoffs and design features associated with noise are also a factor. The pressure is not as strong in other countries nor in our past.

      1. What countries are those? Are you suggesting that the French, for example don’t care about noise?

        There are a lot of stereotypes about the U. S. compared to Western Europe, and the rest of the industrialized world. One is that we care more about the environment, or have stronger labor unions. But that doesn’t explain our high costs, and have been shot down repeatedly. Just look at the introductory paragraph here: https://pedestrianobservations.com/2019/03/03/why-american-costs-are-so-high-work-in-progress/. He lists several excuses (e. g. https://pedestrianobservations.com/2016/11/05/excuses-for-high-construction-costs/) but all of them are B. S. We spend too much because we do things wrong, not because we care too much about the people hurt along the way or the people doing the actual building.

      2. No Ross. I’m suggesting the we care MORE about noise and mitigation than other countries do — like China.

        While not just noise, putting West Seattle Link in a tunnel at 40-50 percent more of the capital cost is exemplary of the situation. Someone would have to be pretty naive to think that mitigation is more rigorous now than in the past.

      3. That might be a little bit of it, but the reality is that — as, sadly, the WingNuts say — there are way too many politically-connected hands in the till. There are a very few firms which are considered “rail-capable” as consultants, and they steer the design to things that only they or their allies can create.

        The truth is that the government could probably do it itself for half the price, but the politicians have to parrot the mantra that “Amurrican Prahvit Ennerprize can do it better” and give contracts to their bloated friends with bloated campaign contributions. And yes, Democrats do it too.

      4. The point is, Al, China is not the comparison that matters. I’ll just repeat the regions (not individual countries) that can build rail systems significantly cheaper than us:

        Western Europe, Central Europe, Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, Japan, South Korea, South America, and most Asian countries.

        You are simply repeating baseless stereotypes. You have no evidence to support your claim. Are the French, the Germans, the Swiss, the Italians, the Norwegians, the Portuguese and the Japanese all more tolerant of noise, or less respectful of personal property? Of course not. The evidence suggests otherwise. Just read the literature. You have an interesting theory, but nothing to support it.

        This is just a variation on a right wing view, that ignores the rest of the industrialized world, while claiming that “back in the day” things were cheaper. If we only get rid of the environmentalists, the labor unions and all them regulations, we could built it all much cheaper, like in the old days. That doesn’t explain why those other countries — every single one — can build systems much cheaper than us, even though they have environmental regulations, labor unions, and personal property rights every bit as strong as ours. What does explain it is laid out in the links that I listed, such as this: https://pedestrianobservations.com/2019/03/03/why-american-costs-are-so-high-work-in-progress/.

      5. I’m not giving a right-wing talking point. I’m simply observing that it drives up costs!

        There are a number of cost factors at work:

        – The US has many areas East of the Mississippi settled in dispersed housing across the rural landscape , as opposed to Chinese and European models of humans living in villages. That makes it more expensive to build the straight lines and gentle curves needed for higher-speed rail because there is often structures in the way.

        – Much of our land ownership is with corporate or very wealthy people. They have attorneys to look after their interests and can bargain harder. That adds costs — and it has nothing to do with being a right-wing talking point . If anything, it’s distributing income to the wealthiest among us to acquire the land. If anything, it’s a left-wing talking point.

        The California High Speed Rail program reporting documents land acquisition problems — and this is in a state with less dense rural settlement patterns than one finds in Alabama or Pennsylvania. https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2019-09-15/california-bullet-train-land-acquisition

        I’m still at a loss why US high-speed rail between cities isn’t using freeway right-of-way whenever possible. The land is already in public ownership (cheaper negotiation), the geometries are already gradual and noise issues are not as litigious . That would seem to cut years and billions from the building costs!

    6. Hi.

      Chinese construction costs are not low. The high-speed rail costs are if anything a little bit high by Continental European standards, due to overuse of elevated lines even in flat areas where tracks can run on the ground without concrete viaducts. The subway construction costs that I have look to be on a par with the rest-of-world median.

      Moreover, everything else you say would predict low construction costs in poorer countries, esp. authoritarian ones. This is not actually in evidence. The poorest country in the world building metros, Bangladesh, has some of the highest costs, adjusted for the fact that the Dhaka Metro is largely elevated. Vietnam, as authoritarian as China, has high construction costs. Singapore, everyone’s poster child for authoritarian efficiency, has the single costliest item in my database outside New York – and the second costliest is a subway in Manila.

  2. This DOT subpoena seeking material related to contracts that was served on SDOT seems weird. I get that there could be “kickbacks” (loosely defined) from Merlino Construction for the western part of Mercer corridor work. That couldn’t be what’s going on with the Rapid Ride contracts the subpoena identified though. The Madison St. Rapid Ride design work is NBD at this point. “Rapid Ride management” contracts are just the interlocal agreement with King County Metro, right? Nobody from King Co. is kicking back anything to SDOT employees . . .. Any ideas?

    1. Maybe I’m being cynical, but I can’t help wondering if this is just petty revenge against a city that voted against the president by over 60 points.

    2. I don’t understand what the charges could be. But if it’s just an investigation at this point, maybe it’s to confirm whether the charges are valid.

      There have been concerns locally about the Kubly era, how the Move Seattle estimates were overoptimistic and misleading, but it’s hard to see anything the feds would be interested in.

      It could be political, but that’s unlikely at this low level for these trivial projects. One thing to look for is whether other blue cities are getting similar investigations.

    3. Kubly was slimy. Murray was slimy. Would it really be that surprising if their slime actually involved breaking the law? We know they were liars. We know that many of their projects had big, bizarre, costly aspects to them. Would you be shocked if, say, one of them (likely Kubly) took a little money from some contractor or supplier to steer the city towards doing business with them? I wouldn’t. I hope they rot in jail.

      That probably won’t happen, of course. They are too rich, powerful and white to serve time. Still, I would like to see Kubly get sued, and end up blackballed by the industry, and forced to work a real job. My guess is he would just switch to selling used cars, giving used car salesmen a bad name.

  3. https://www.history.com/news/transcontinental-railroad-chinese-immigrants

    A little history here. The Chinese have been at this for awhile, including here. But for lousy labor laws and worse environmental protections, and the raw power that “private” companies exercise over our whole governmental system….

    By your calculation, prison labor should have Miami to Texas in about six months.
    Thanks for the laugh. Badly need some humor this morning. Happy New Year.

    Mark Dublin

  4. The overall tragedy is that we don’t like to improve and maintain our transportation infrastructure. While New high-speed rail is at the bottom of priorities, spending on other modes is way down nationally. Keep in mind that any new facility also has to be maintained (and higher-speed trains require more rigorous maintenance to operate at full speed).

    I am discouraged that we don’t even have the ambitions or sense of national pride of the 1980’s for our transportation system. It has serious consequences for our country.

    1. Most discouraging thing about this election – well maybe second-most to overseas news these last couple days- is how limp the Democrats seem to be on what I think is our country’s gravest need.

      Stock market, wages, housing….Public Radio overfloweth. But grave-appropriate silence on fact that in addition to an oncoming trillion dollar deficit, basic repairs on our country seem planned by the same mind that’s been handling all LINK’s escalators and elevators. Federal Government OUGHT to investigate.

      I’m too old to know what “woke” means, and advancing years really do leave people deaf, but from what I can make out, “Green New Deal” isn’t even a paint job on a bus, let alone high-speed rail. I truly hope I’m missing something.

      Right now, seems to me Bernie and Liz (they need to both just unite their campaigns and decide later which one gets which office, though Liz Warren handles the Senate so well she’s a natural VP) are in a position to literally take both China and its superb railroads away from a certain hotel owner in, finally, an actual DEAL!!!.

      Maybe desperation’s left me feeling Newsfaked for life, but based on general approach of present Administration….somebody prove to me me that in addition to the power to destroy the planet, we’ve only got one official authorized to make a deal.


      With White House attention distracted, more or less its normal condition since 2016, tomorrow night the two of them can just visit the Chinese Embassy and walk out with trade papers announcing resumption of the national rail program put on “pause” so many decades ago. With next stop being the Consulate of Ireland for work crews skilled in the spike-driving songs automatic timers could never replace.

      Knowing Senator Warren’s attachment to her party, if our railroads’ success requires it, I doubt she’ll mind being referred to as “Biddy” or “Bridget.”

      Mark Dublin

      1. “Federal Government OUGHT to investigate.”

        They’re the culprit. Or one of the culprits.

        “I’m too old to know what “woke” means”

        It seems to mean ultra-progressive. Kids and their new words. The one relevant to me at the moment is minimalism. I’ve been doing that for decades before it was called that. Still, it’s interesting watching the twentysomethings on YouTube debate what it means, and hopefully not get into the trap of draconian rules but rather keeping what’s important to you and ditching the rest, which necessarily involves figuring out what’s important to you. That’s probably the most useful part of it.

  5. Mark Dublin, I have an idea for you, since you’re down there in Oly. Ride IT a few times, and interview some passengers and bus drivers, and ask them how the new ride free thing is going, then report back here with your findings. I guess it’s a given the passengers will like it. But what do the drivers think of it so far?

    1. Or simply tell us what you think of Intercity Transit. Are the routes useful? Are they useful to you?

      1. Mike Orr, I have an idea for you, too. You live in Seattle, but used to live in Bellevue. The advantages of transit in Seattle are obvious. But does the Eastside top Seattle in any transit categories?

      2. No. Shoreline, south King County, and Snohomish County beat Seattle on full BAT lanes for the E, A, and Swift Blue, but the Eastside has nothing like that. The best thing about Bellevue is if you live near downtown Bellevue you can walk to a wide variety of destinations. I lived there in the early 80s when most of it wasn’t there but you could still walk to a supermarket, movie theater, fast-food job, library, clothes shopping, post office, parks, etc.

      3. The best thing about Eastside transit is the B is full-time frequent. The second-best thing is East Link is coming in three years. That will connect the emerging ridership/density axis between Bellevue and Redmond, as well as Seattle. The third-best thing is 405 Stride. That will only be moderately useful but at least it’s a fast/frequent north-south corridor. The Eastside bus restructures the past decade have done some interesting innovations, like Overlake-Eastgate and 116th, and the coming Kirkland restructure. That’s at least going in the right direction. There’s only so much transit can do to overcome land use problems, but at least it’s trying.

      4. The best thing about Bellevue is if you live near downtown Bellevue you can walk to a wide variety of destinations.

        I knew someone who lived in downtown Bellevue, in a house. It was a weird thing. There he was, living in a house, not that far from skyscrapers. Of course the skyscrapers were new, which is why the house was there. Still, very bizarre.

        I worked in various places on the East Side and I will say I liked downtown Bellevue the best, by far. No old brick buildings — nothing of note from an architectural standpoint, really — but a really nice mix of office density and old school suburbia. You could walk to a nice, big, old Thai restaurant, or a great urban park. You could shop for Nordic skis on your lunch hour, from your twenty story office building. Transit was good enough, really, especially for the commuter. All that and a nice grid (more or less). It worked (and still does, I’m sure).

        But it was nothing like Seattle (and still isn’t). To be clear, from a transit standpoint you are better off being in downtown Bellevue than you are central Magnolia. But your average Seattle location is still much better than your average Bellevue location.

      5. Sam, answer on paying for transit in ways other than the farebox is “What’s not to like?” First of all, costs less money. And second, saves a world of time and aggravation.

        My own time in the driver’s seat left me first-hand convinced that to reveal the truth, our balance sheet needed a special column in addition to black for credit and red for debit. “Feedlot Floor Brown”, with ink appropriately perfumed, to reflect the real accumulating cost of any policy that holds the vehicle still when it should be moving.

        Mike, for Intercity Transit, have always felt that my ridership has never been quite fair to the system. First several years here, I really looked at IT as one stage of a work day where Olympia was home and Seattle was where I went to work. Sometimes twice or three times a week.

        As freeway transit worsened toward its present unusability due to crowding and crashes, hatred for being stuck aboard a trapped bus- even ST’s highway buses lack bathrooms- put me in the pattern of driving back roads to Tacoma Dome or Wright Park (Grand Cinema and attached espresso) and transferring to ST. Sometimes go for Ferry out of Southworth to Rapid Ride at Fauntleroy.

        Since suicide-related delays have become Standard Operating Procedure for Sounder, usual choice is ST 574 from Dome to Airport, and transfer to LINK. 594 goes from Express to Parked at Spokane Street.

        Was also prone to long drives in surrounding counties in the name of learning and memorizing escape routes. My first week here, a truck explosion where I-5 crossed the Nisqually almost saw to it I didn’t get home. Hence three years scouting and memorizing every back way.

        Since I got my first license in high school, two-lane motoring for its own sake was intensive recreation and skill- building. Think it fell under sport category of rally driving, not speed but skill at handling the machine. Also, in more ways than one Olympia is a much smaller town than Seattle- so that now that my curiosity’s taken care of, just don’t go that many different places.

        Lifelong habit from high school to finish a work day by getting on transit about six and going off for espresso. Just got home a minute ago. Will give Intercity Transit one major set of points: they’re very strict about polite passenger relations. Drivers tell me it’s not because of my age that they don’t move the bus ’til I sit down. Orders say do that for everybody.

        By design, new Express buses have straight routes with extremely few stops. Not enough rides yet to evaluate appeal. However, very positive thing they’re pioneering is that every zone has a block-long bus only lane in front of it. Think they’re discussing signal pre-empt which definitely should happen.

        Have said before that it’s wise to at least start planning to bring at least Olympia and North Thurston County into ST. Know I’m seeing somebody who used to live in Ballard trapped alongside me every time somebody crashes half a dozen cars or three trailer-trucks around I-5 and SR 101.

        Best I can do tonight, guys. Still a work in progress.

      6. One category where Bellevue tops Seattle, in my experience, is a sense of safety. Most negative experiences I’ve had have happened in Seattle. And 90% of my transit usage is on the Eastside.

  6. One of my worries about the United States is that our politics and public institutions have become so sclerotic and owned by incumbent interests that they’re unable to solve any major issues.

    At the federal level, you can see this in the Senate, where the filibuster has made it a legislative graveyard- even when bills poll well with the public and have majority support among senators. At the state and local levels, we can see this in the inability to control construction costs and build major projects- take a look at California High Speed Rail, or transit in and around NYC- by far the most transit dependent city in the country- but who, during the past 30 years- has only managed to build about 3.5 miles of new subway track and 4 new stations at costs far above what other developed countries pay for their subways. Or look at housing costs in San Francisco and the Bay Area- it’s been one of the economic engines of the country for decades, but the limits on housing construction have left the region unaffordable for almost anyone who isn’t rich.

    Seattle has done better than NYC at building transit, and better than SF at building housing, but that’s small comfort when rents have roughly doubled in the past decade, we’re decades behind where we need to be in building out Link, and the CCC and Rapidride+ projects have been mishandled, delayed, and over-budget.

  7. Part of our problem is “buy America” rules. If we could just import rail technology from Europe or Asia instead of having to do everything from scratch, costs would go down considerably. Especially if the Trump tarrifs on steel and other materials were also lifted.

    1. For getting things off the ground like the California project, sure, by all means. But if we really wanted to build a comprehensive national network like what “Obamarail” had in mind, we had better develop our “made in America” capabilities. If the Feds were to make HSR, or even just upgrading Amtrak conventional rail, a national priority, I suspect American companies would step up to get the contracts. It should be pointed out that most of the HSR in Asia and Europe is not being done at the provincial and municipal levels but at the national level.

    2. The feds could help with a bridge to American train manufacturing, recognizing that it has to start with foreign equiment now. The American companies that have looked into it have declined or failed because the market is too small. The feds could increase the market by simply prioritizing transit and infrastructure, and focus on moving people rather than moving cars. Somewhere, over the rainbow….

  8. Addressing the “yuge” discrepancy in what we pay compared to the rest of the world for pretty much all forms of infrastructure was one of the few things I expected the Trump administration to be able to do (it was something he talked about during the campaign). I mean, even if they just did it for highways and bridges, the same principle could be applied to rail and transit by subsequent administrations, right? If we ever get past the whole identity politics thing, it would seem to be something both parties could work together on. For the Puget Sound metropolis, it would seem to be critical, as we need to both rapidly expand our mass transit system and replace/refurbish some expensive highway and bridge infrastructure in the coming decades, and probably cannot do either without reducing these costs.

    1. That two miles of viaduct on I-5 south of Washington Street is going to be a NIGHTMARE to rehab.

    2. Addressing the “yuge” discrepancy in what we pay compared to the rest of the world for pretty much all forms of infrastructure was one of the few things I expected the Trump administration to be able to do (it was something he talked about during the campaign).

      That is like expecting the drunk guy at the end of the bar to fix the Knicks. Oh, without a doubt he knows about the problems. He can rattle off every failure the team has made over the years. He is absolutely right — management is incompetent. But he has no clue how to fix things. He doesn’t have the experience to know what to do, nor the intelligence to hire people who do.

    3. Trump’s promises of infrastructure upgrades and health care cost reductions were predicated on a free market fantasy most Americans believe in more than god. We get tax cuts for the wealthy and the same pork filled highway crap.
      Another example: we could have major health care cost reductions if Medicare was allowed to set drug prices but by law we have to pay what the manufacturer demands.
      As far as the freeway rebuild it will be billions and billions and of course way overbudget, I mean we just built that stupid tunnel on the waterfront, no transit access, no exits to downtown, double the expected cost and another monument to car culture. Changes have to legislated to be effective, but there is no political will to do so at this time.

      1. Trump’s promises of infrastructure upgrades and health care cost reductions were predicated on a free market fantasy most Americans believe in more than god.

        Well said. Easy to blame the unions, even though other countries (in Scandinavia, for example) have much lower construction costs, but very high labor costs.

  9. The other day got treated by NPR to credible description how Made In America became a three word death sentence to two 737-loads of passengers. Story is that nationwide we now need to add “The Confederate States of…” to the manufacturing country’s title now. In Boeing’s new quarters in the culture of slavery’s old quarters, wherever US latitude they’ve now taken hold of, labor relations mean inspectors who shut and do what they’re told when ordered to ignore misplaced parts.


    I really think that given the Democrats’ present condition, there’s a prize-winning PhD History thesis in the truth that what’s needed to Make America Bearable Again is to restore the party that temporarily won, well, Civil War Round One. Given recent incidents these last couple of years, will be revelatory to watch Abraham Lincoln’s memory given the same degree of honor as John McCain’s.

    Though paper’s main thrust will be that we’ll work willingly and skillfully for worthwhile lives and decent wages again when we start making things in America because that is just plain what we Americans do. Question for STB readership is whether St. Louis or Everett gets the PCC streetcar to build.

    Mark Dublin

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