China 中国Off the rails? 出轨了？
High-speed trains might be forced to go a little more slowly 高铁或许会被迫放慢速度
CHINA’s high-speed rail network is probably the world’s most ambitious public-works project, a 21st-century equivalent of America’s Interstate highway system. Officials crow at each new speed milestone and each dramatic reduction in intercity-travel times. But after the disgrace and sacking of the railways minister and a series of other corruption investigations, the construction of the system itself may be shunted onto the slow track.
In 2008 China had only 649km of high-speed railway. It now has nearly 8,400km, four times as much as the next-largest network (Japan’s). The total will approach 19,000km by 2014, according to analysts at UBS, a Swiss bank (see map). That would be ten times as extensive as Japan’s. China is also adding copious amounts of traditional track and upgrading lines, mostly intended for freight. Estimates for the bill range from $530 billion to $750 billion in today’s money—comparable to America’s interstate system, which cost over $400 billion in 2006 dollars.
But question-marks have been raised over these plans after the sacking in February of Liu Zhijun, the minister responsible for building the high-speed network. He was accused of skimming off as much as 1 billion yuan ($152m) in bribes and of keeping as many as 18 mistresses. Zhang Shuguang, another top official in the railways ministry, was later dismissed for corruption. Separately, on March 23rd, state auditors reported that $28m had been embezzled from the 1,300km high-speed line between Beijing and Shanghai, the highest-profile of China’s many rail projects.
Public support for high-speed trains is muted. The trains may reach 350km per hour but fares are proportionately eye- watering. That is all right for well-heeled travellers, happy to have an alternative to flying. But tens of millions of poor migrants who work far afield and flock home for the Chinese new year are being priced out the rail market and have to go by bus (the number of bus journeys is soaring).
The sacking of top officials may be the result merely of one of China’s periodic anti-corruption campaigns. Or it may be the upshot of a high-level factional or personal battle, in which corruption charges are often a favourite weapon. If so, the dismissals would not necessarily affect railway development.
But some experts think construction may slow down. In his first public remarks, the new railways minister, Sheng Guangzu, repeatedly stressed the importance of quality and safety, implying that corruption may have led to corner-cutting, and that the timetables on some projects may now have to change. The breakneck pace of construction has also left the ministry with large and—say some analysts—unsustainable debts, putting further pressure on projects.
No one thinks China is going to make drastic changes to what is a signature national programme. (And one from which it hopes to spin off lucrative contracts building railways in Algeria, Iran, Russia, Kazakhstan and elsewhere.) But it might postpone some of the dizzier schemes, such as one to build a freight line across mountainous northern Colombia to rival the Panama canal. And all those high-speed lines in China might now be laid at a slightly less breakneck pace.