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lessons learned from the third world?

By enelson
Wednesday, December 6th, 2006 at 6:57 pm in Funding, high-speed rail, rail.


After many delays and distractions, I finally got a chance to hear how Rod Diridon‘s trip to Hong Kong went.

The Mineta Transportation Institute director and member of the California High Speed Rail Authority found that countries like India and China, where a few trains are still powered by coal and steam, regard the United States as something of a third-world country when it comes to taking full advantage of railroads.

In the same breath lamenting that the $20 billion transportation bond voters approved Nov. 7 has only $4 billion for public transit, Diridon marveled at Chinese and Indian plans to completely electrify their rail networks within a generation.

China also pledged to double its rail network, which must’ve set the AsiaRail 2006 conference on fire, as such events go.

“The amazing thing about both of these countries is that the rest of the world was frightened about these two emerging countries causing global warming,” Diridon remarked. “But they have pragmatically and determinedly chosen not to allow their rapidly evolving economies add to the problem.”

I have to say that when the People’s Republic of China sets its mind to do something, you can more-or-less set your clock to it. That’s the nice thing about a worker’s paradise; the leadership wakes up one morning and decides that maglev is cool, and the next thing you know, Chinese maglev is the envy of Europe.

On the other hand, I’d wonder about India’s plan to electrify its railroads within a decade. It costs money, and even the Great Superpower can’t seem to afford it.

But that’s the lesson from Diridon’s trip.

After giving the keynote speech, Diridon said he was peppered with “some very direct questions about the contribution of the United States to global warming,” what with 4 percent of the world’s population and 30 percent of its carbon dioxide output (excluding wild animals and humans).

“The way you compete in the international marketplace is by moving people to work efficiently,” Diridon went on. “In 20 years, both India and China are going to run circles around us, and that’s because they’re willing to spend the money now on a non-petroleum based diversified transportation system.

“They’ll have a lot of different options to move their products and their people, while we’re stuck with seriously congested rail and truck freight transport systems, not to mention our commuter congestion.”

The rest of the conversation drifted into the viability of California high-speed rail, luckily without touching upon the whole Altamont v. Pacheco pass dispute, but I was struck by the whole third-world charge.

It would be amazing if India and China built up their transportation infrastructure to be run by the cleanest power sources they can hook to their grid (coal seems to be the fuel of choice in China now). I certainly would sleep better at night.

But I’m not holding my breath. It may or may not happen. Those nations with the largest share of humanity are currently predicted to grow just the way everybody else did, choking on soot and spewing greenhouse gases.

The big question for us Americans, as neglectful as we seem to be, is will we step up and use some of that superpower might and know-how to develop our transportation infrastructure for our grandkids?

That might have something to do with Diridon’s dream of high-speed rail, but it could also mean something as simple as expanding and electrifying our existing rail system and separating it from freight lines.

Very few people think rail can replace the automobile or the passenger jet. What the transportation experts say, however, is that we will need all modes of transportation to keep a growing population moving.

I would have loved to have taken the train to Van Nuys for Thanksgiving, and with regular, uninterrupted, faster electric service, I might have been able to do that in a reasonable time for a reasonable price. A direct train would have taken 13 hours. I drove it in 6.

And, praise Caltrans and whomever you choose to pray to, I didn’t hit a lick of traffic.

Photo from

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6 Responses to “lessons learned from the third world?”

  1. FTSandy Says:

    I don’t know about China as a whole, but in Beijing quite a bit of the rail being added is specifically for the 2008 Olympic Games. The amount of track will grow from 114 km today to about 200 km. Which makes sense, since athletes and tourists attending the games won’t have their own transportation. The fact that it’s left over and available to the local population is a bonus. And they’re already planning to extend the new lines being built for the games. See

    MTR (of Hong Kong) is building and will operate at least one of the lines.

    And, tangentally, MTR is doing cool stuff with modeling Hong Kong’s rail system in digital form and using the model to plan improvements, schedule maintenance, and such. You can read a little about it here:

  2. FTSandy Says:

    P.S. That photo of the decorated train in India reminds me of the of the Niles Canyon Railway at Christmastime. Fun pics here:

  3. South Bay Resident Says:

    Ron Diridon’s quote about China choosing not to add to the problem of Global warming is just silly. China, with a economy roughly the size of California is the number 2 greenhouse gas emitter (and growing rapidly). I recently read that china is adding 1000 Megawatts of coal power per day. To put this in perspective, that’s about twice the size of a typical power plant in California, (which builds fewer than 1 power plant per year). Also, in addition to electrifying its rail system, China is also proposing to build a freeway network that is larger than the U.S. interstate system.

    As for rail transportation, the U.S. has the best freight rail system in the world. It is energy efficient, gaining market share and doesn’t require any government subsidy. Unfortunately, our fixation on moving people by train, which doesn’t work well in the American context for several reasons, is threatening that network by taking capacity from freight routes and using it to move (few) people.

    Passenger rail doesn’t work well in the U.S. because we are wealthy enough that car ownership is universal, because F.R.A. safety regulations require U.S. passenger trains to be extremely heavy (which makes them very expensive), because low population densities make electrification non cost effective and because freight railroads are very well engineered for heavy loads at slow speeds, which leads to very different design choices than if you’re engineering for light loads at high speeds.

  4. Don in Houston Says:

    I totally agree with “South Bay Resident” in in views on China.

    `Vehicle sales already at 4.69 million units by October-end should close 2005 at 5.8 million units, making China the world’s second biggest automobile market.’

    New Delhi , Dec. 8

    “THE Chinese market, for some time now the growth engine of the global automobile industry, is poised to enter that critical phase identified with sustained long-term growth in the traditional development cycle of automobile markets, a senior economist from that country’s State Information Centre has said.

    His comments came against the backdrop of the recent slowdown in Chinese automobile sales after a period of intense growth in 2002 and 2003.

    From 1.45 million vehicles sold in 1996, the market size zoomed to 5.20 million units in 2004.”

    Individual and independant movement is what most people really cherish and desire. What needs to be discussed are more plans for energy efficient PRT vehicles, also known as automobiles.

  5. Michael F. Sarabia Says:

    Would it were so simple. “Build railways and they will come” so, why did they tear them up?
    Trains are best at moving masses of people from A to B. Look at the light rail in San Diego, it looks like your train in India. It brings masses of workers in and out daily to and from Tijuana.
    Look at High Speed trains in Europe and Japan, daily they move masses between high-density cities and leave the land for farming, forests, etc. But, THEY plan ahead and do not use developers to use the cheapest form of housing construction: Low Density Housing.
    Instead of an intelligent plan, look at what we will do in East Contra Costa County.
    BART was supposed to go to Brentwood or Byron, depending on who you ask.
    “They” said BART is too expensive and stopped at Bay Point. The extension to Byron, “they” said, would cost $1.2 Billion. “TOO MUCH’ they said. “eBART” will cost $500 Million.
    NOW, they say eBART will cost $1.3 Billion! Get the picture!
    Let me say it anyway, they said “BART is too expensive at $1.2 Billion” and now theysay “eBART is not too expensive at $1.3 Billion”.
    “They”, our irresponsible leaders, are willing to borrow Billions and let taxpayers pay whatever they think they “can get away with”, as the phrase goes. They will have “moved on” when the bill comes due.

    Add to that a fare of $8 Dollars, that goes up every two years, and a COUNTY subsidy of another $8 Dollars and… surely you can now see the picture, right?
    Leaders in other countries do not have the money to waste so they are frugal, and efficient.
    Our leaders know voters must be kept content in the present and “ignore” the future. See?

    Do you think the average rail worker in China, Japan or Europe makes over $100,000 a year?
    BART workers do.
    Do you think any nation would be smart enough to build a train system, designed to be operated by computers, and then require each train to have a crew, with an Operator, anyway?
    What do you think our selfless train workers do at strike time, to get more money?
    Worst: BART Management agreed to stop training Managers to operate trains in case of a strike.

    What if they ask for a pay increase of 40%?
    Let’s not wonder what other countries would do.
    By now, you know the answer, or we are both wasting time.

  6. Reedman Says:

    [ Reference: A 400-page report by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation, entitled Livestock’s Long Shadow, November,2006] The world’s 1.5 billion cattle are responsible for 18 per cent of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming, more than cars, planes and all other forms of transport put together.

    P.S. Don’t tell Al Gore …

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