Chinese Hope to Go Back to Work on America’s Railroads

In 1869 in Promontory, Utah a team of eight Chinese laborers hoisted the last rail into place on the Union Pacific Railroad, connecting the East and West coasts of America by rail for the first time.

A hundred and forty-one years later, the Chinese are angling to get back in the railway business in the US.

The Chinese Rail Ministry has signed cooperation agreements with GE and the State of California to provide technology and engineers for the construction of a proposed high-speed railway running the length of California, according to the New York Times.

The agreements are preliminary, and could face opposition from lawmakers and unions concerned about buy American provisions and labor standards.

But the deal makes sense, at least on paper. China has accumulated a lot of experience building high-speed lines, and has been able to push costs down through enormous economies of scale. John Scales, the lead transport specialist in the Beijing office of the World Bank, told the Times “These guys are engineering driven — they know how to build fast, build cheaply and do a good job.”

In January the Obama administration announced 13 high-speed rail projects would get $8 billion in federal seed money for a grand plan to build a network of high-speed routes across the country. California got $2.25 billion of that money for the proposed route, which would run 465 miles from San Francisco to Los Angeles and on to Anaheim, at a cost $43 billion. The line is supposed to open in 2020.

China is also interested in helping finance the line, according to the Times.

Greentech predictions already coming true?

The potential deal with the Chinese Rail Ministry would appear to give credence to warnings from VCs, greentechies, environmentalists and others that China is pulling far ahead of the United States in green technology.

High-speed rail lines reduce carbon emissions by taking people out of their cars and putting them in all-electric public transportation. The proposed network here would save 125 million barrels of oil a year once fully built, according to advocates.

China is opening 1,200 miles of high-speed routes this year alone. By 2012 the Chinese Rail Ministry hopes to complete a route between Beijing and Shanghai that will take a mere four hours to travel a distance equivalent to New York to Chicago or Atlanta.

Currently the only high-speed line in the US is the Acela Express, between Boston and DC, with a top speed of 150 miles an hour.

Just think: some day maybe Americans will go to China to work on their railroads!

BC (Ben) Upham is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for the New York Times, and was a writer and editor for News Communications, Inc., a local paper consortium serving Manhattan. When he's not blogging on green issues -- and especially renewable energy -- he's hiking in the Angeles Mountains or hanging out at El Matador.

One response

  1. It is a shame that US is so far behind Asia and Europe in high-speed rails. This shows the political influence of oil lobby, auto lobby and lawyers lobby who all benefit from non-availability of a viable alternate to driving cars everywhere in the US. In some ways we are heading (at high speed) to be part of third world in terms of infrastructure as countries like China move to a developed and rich nation. We can only pray that some day interest of the common people and our nation supersede the legalized greed of ………

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