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Shanghai and Fast Trains: How About U.S.?

Neal Peirce / Oct 24 2010

For Release Sunday, October 24, 2010
© 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceSHANGHAI — A deep gulp. That’s what an American has to take, more than ever in 2010, after exposure to this city of rapid-fire growth and development.

While the U.S. stews over how mad its citizens are at government, agonizing over lost jobs and official deficits, Shanghai and China are basking in the warmth of a highly successful World Exposition. It’s been a grand exhibit of culture, ideas and technology from 189 countries and many corporations. Already visited by a record setting 66 million people, this world expo hopes for 70 million before it finally closes next Sunday.

But it’s Shanghai’s intended follow-through that stuns one. No longer just a factory town for exportable goods, the city says it’s poised to pour some $15 billion into bio-pharmaceuticals, new energy, new materials, information technology and high-end manufacturing. “It’s a must model,” Mayor Han Zheng told an international business group last week, “for Shanghai to shift its growth model from investment driven to innovation driven.”

And check the infrastructure. Shanghai boasts one of the planet’s most extensive subway systems — now 268 miles, scheduled to grow to 370 miles by 2015. And this is home to the world’s only “maglev” system, trains hovering just above the tracks and propelled by magnetic force. Passengers are transferred between the airport and downtown at speeds of up to 268 miles an hour.

Shanghai Trains

With all that and lit skyscrapers by the dozens, it’s hard to believe this is the same Shanghai I first visited in 1979, when everyone wore Mao suits, Western visitors were oddities, and the roadways were literal rivers of bicycles interspersed by a few motor vehicles.

So while in Shanghai, what news do I hear about New York, America’s top metro region? It’s that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, in the name of saving taxpayer dollars, has sought to pull the plug on the largest and arguably most important public works project underway in America — the second tunnel under the Hudson River, in the planning for 20 years.

It’s true cost projections on the tunnel have nearly doubled to $9 billion since 2005. New Jersey’s expected to pay a third. But bids are currently coming in under budget and the project would create 6,000 jobs in the hard-hit construction industry. Its two tracks would take the ugly crush off seriously overcrowded Jersey-to-Manhattan commuting, adding some $600 million to the region’s yearly economy by enhanced access of Jerseyites to jobs in New York’s prospering pharmaceutical, financial and business sectors.

Plus, if a design change were now made to have the tunnel connect to Penn Station (instead of a dead end under 34th Street), Amtrak could use the tracks to enhance efficiency of its Northeast rail corridor.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is working hard to get Christie to reverse his position or negotiate some compromise on financing. Washington, he can note, is actually putting up an unprecedented $3 billion for the project.

Barack Obama has made history as the first president to urge high-speed rail in America. His initial request was $8 billion — tiny potatoes compared to China’s avowed national goal of $100 billion a year for dozens of high-speed rail lines including 3,000 miles that can handle trains running at 215 miles per hour. And just a fraction, too, of what the Europeans have spent and aim to spend on high-speed rails that serve as vital connectors for business and personal travel.

But like Christie, the Republican candidates for governor in three states selected to get the biggest federal assist for high-speed rail — Wisconsin ($810 million), Ohio ($400 million) and California ($2.25 billion) — are dragging their feet, the New York Times reports. Their complaint: there could be significant state expenses to complete the lines or operate the trains once they go into service.

Are we sticking our heads in the sand, ignoring the immense economic benefits of high-speed rail — the potential, says Secretary LaHood, “to transform transportation in America, much like the Interstate Highway system did under President Eisenhower”? And that at a very time when interest rates for capital borrowing are at an historic low, and unemployment at record post-World War II highs?

The communications director for California’s outgoing governor, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, notes trenchantly of current GOP candidate Meg Whitman’s opposition to high-speed rail funding: “To say ‘now is not the time’ shows a very narrow vision.”

The reluctant Republican governor candidates should tour the stunning railway pavilion at the Shanghai Expo. It’s a powerful high-tech vision of rapid rails undergirding and advancing the economy of our new and major international competitor. True, China lacks personal liberties or environmental protections to match ours. But the new American patriotism has to look reality in the face: it’s primarily economics, not military power, that will determine the wealth and welfare of nations in this century. It should be intolerable to think we’ll accept second-class status.

Neal Peirce’s e-mail is

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  1. Posted October 24, 2010 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    We do have our heads in the sand spending too much time worrying about non-issues and too much money on defense all the while we watch our country lose on every count from education to transportation. Let alone medical care, homelessness and a host of other real issues. Well, it was a good fling while it lasted.

  2. Gino Carlucci
    Posted October 24, 2010 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    When I was in high school in 1969, I wrote a term paper about maglev technology. Never would I have believed then that more than 40 years would pass and there still would not be a maglev train in the U.S. We are in danger of losing our status as a leader in technology and economic growth if we continue to neglect our infrastructure

  3. Neal Peirce
    Posted October 24, 2010 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

    Other interesting commentary on the high-speed rail with special relevance to California:

  4. Bradley Tupper Upham
    Posted October 25, 2010 at 8:58 am | Permalink


    I might add that the two single-track tunnels from New Jersey-to New York Penn Station turned 100 years old last year.

    Source: Manhattan Gateway-New York’s Pennsylvania Station William Middleton Kalmbach Books, Milwaukee, WI 1996. Page 31.
    So while we sit with our patriotic thumbs up our collective keesters whining about “Gays, God and Guns”, China blows our doors off. Uhmerka, making me proud. Not.
    Bradley T. Upham
    Lakewood, Ohio

  5. Bradley Tupper Upham
    Posted October 25, 2010 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    More on the tunnels that link Manhattan to the west:

    Hudson and Manhattan tubes (Path)
    2 single track tubes (North tubes) opened 1903
    2 single track tubes (South tubes) opened 1909

    Pennsylvania Railroad Station extension-Manhattan Junction-Penn Station
    2 single track tubes opened 1910

    Holland Vehicular Tunnel
    2 two-lane tubes opened 1920

    Lincoln Vehicular Tunnel
    3 two lane tubes
    1st tube opened 1937
    2nd tube opened 1945
    3 tube opened 1957

    Source: Everybody’s (Wikipedia)

    Ya’ think we are standing still???

    Lakewood, Ohio

  6. Art
    Posted October 25, 2010 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    The USA need NOT electrify proposed HSR systems. Cut 30% the cost and put funds first into grade separation, smooth curves, better ballast, ties and welded rail. Electrify later if 140mph standard locomotives aren’t fast enough. Non-electrified track lets freight trains share track when and where desirable. Electrification through mostly rural routes offers little environmental benefit. Trains moving at insanely high speeds will bypass smaller cities in a discriminating effect that HSR advocates haughtily disregard. MAGLEV uses twice the electricity and its infrastructure more bulky and complex.

    Build track. Electrify later, maybe, maybe not. Our problem is inner-city traffic, not intra-city luxury travel. Electricity is needed for light rail, metro rail, streetcars and electric buses. Few can afford the luxury ticket price of HSR. Baloney. Non-electrified TALGO trainsets is the way to go, not Acela, not maglev.

  7. Ralph Woodward
    Posted October 25, 2010 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    My visit to Shanghai and other Chinese cities in the fall of 2009 convinced me that China’s economy and culture will dominate the last decades of the 21st century. But the U.S. and Europe are still in the running. See

  8. Robert Justice
    Posted October 26, 2010 at 8:09 am | Permalink

    Dear Neal:
    We spend $5,000,000,000 (billion) per day to import oil from around the world. That is $1,500,000,000,000 (trillion) per year. We need to get the autos and trucks off the roads and the most expedient way to do that is with mass transit within the cities and rebuilding our rail systems between cities. That will be speedy trains, but will not be 300 miles per hour trains in Shanghai and Hong Kong from the cities to the airports. They are beautiful and my wife and I saw one in Hong Kong go past us when we were on a bus to the airport. We have so much to do in the transportation area and cannot afford them at this time. I am becomming more and more angry with Secertary Chu and his lack of leadership as our Energy Secretary. We need someone who will develope a priorized master plan and push the administration to start doing these things. A demonstration unit of high speed rail would be nice and I am sure that the Chinese would build one for us in the D.C. to NYC corridor at half the cost that
    we could it.
    Many Thanks
    Robert Justice

  9. Robert Justice
    Posted October 26, 2010 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    Dear Neal and Art:
    I didn’t see Art’s comment, above, before I wrote my comment. His views are absolutly the type that we need in developing the master plan that I discussed in my first note. He is very knowledgeable about railroad transportation and most probably is an engineer. I would like to talk with him but I don’t have his email address. We have too many politicians and enviromentalists, AKA Robert Redford, Al Gore and Robert Kennedy Jr., planning our programs and we need more people like Art. There are many like him if we just bring them into the process.
    Many Thanks
    Robert Justice

  10. Bradley Tupper Upham
    Posted October 26, 2010 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    (Re) Build track. That sounds nice Art, except the majority of rail trackage in the USA is owned by private freight railroads. Add to the fact that this trackage is built to standards that would even make the Victorian English (of which 125 MPH HST diesel passenger trains run on) wince. Most of this trackage is woefully inadequate for anything above 70 MPH. Plus the fact that most of the mileage in the USA is not equipped with some sort of Auto Train Stop, which is required by the FRA for any operation above 79 MPH, the “northeast corridor”, a tiny Amtrak owned segment in SW Michigan and the BNSF mainline across the Mojave Desert excepted.

    And if you think the freight railroads are going to let their trackage be run over in a right of eminent domain power play (which was how the interstates were built), think again.

    The high-speed rail initiative here in Ohio is almost a dead duck due to the fact that the incremental (re) introduction of passenger train service will have an average speed of 39 MPH, and the Republicans are fixing to kill it and send the money back to Washington.

    We need to think big. We need to be brave and visionary as Alexander Cassatt was when he built Penn Station NY and it’s support structure at the turn of the last century. We need to be progressive as the PRR was when they electrified (with WPA money) from New York to both Washington and Harrisburg in 1935. Strong like Japan with the Shinkansen trains averaging over 100 MPH in 1964. Bold like the Chinese are today. Or we’re toast.

  11. Robert Justice
    Posted October 28, 2010 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    Dear Neal, Art and Bradley:
    This interaction is great . Now where is Secretary Chu and other experts to determine what needs to be done. No Politicians or Actors please.
    Robert Justice

  12. Posted May 26, 2012 at 2:23 am | Permalink

    If so, then it would be a great achievement. I think this kind of structure really move very fast speed.