Asian governments shouldn't let benefits of high-speed rail pass them by

Asian governments shouldn't let benefits of high-speed rail pass them by
A high-speed train driver prepares to depart from Shanghai Hongqiao railway station.

SYDNEY - The spread of high-speed rail in Asia should not be seen solely as a contest between China and Japan for geopolitical advantage. It is partly that, but both countries, as well as France, Germany and Canada, have developed technologies that could deliver economic, environmental and social benefits to new operators in the region. Although government subsidies to customers should be minimized, the technology has much to offer the many countries in Asia and elsewhere that are considering whether to get on board.

Japan has operated high-speed rail commercially for 50 years, Europe for 33 years and China more recently. The technology is proven, energy-efficient, usually boosts regional economic growth, and has much lower greenhouse gas emissions than road or air transport. Although "high speed" is often defined as more than 250kph, "wheel on steel" trains can now operate safely at 360kph. High-speed rail has carried 6.5 billion passengers in Japan without injury, thanks largely to the country's policy of separating the tracks from traditional rail or road traffic.

High-speed systems are expanding rapidly, with ambitious proposals to go much further in Asia and elsewhere. Japan is already well-covered domestically, as are South Korea and Taiwan. Although construction started only around 2000, China's network is over 12,000km, with official plans for 25,000km. Spain's 3,100km is the second-largest.

Japan pioneered high-speed rail in 1964 but has actively promoted the export of its shinkansen trains only since 1990. Taiwan has been its main customer so far, but it has had some success in the UK and China, and is expected to win a US contract for a privately funded link between Dallas and Houston. France's Train a Grande Vitesse system, better known as the TGV, entered service in 1981 and quickly dominated the European market; it later won a contract in South Korea. German and Canadian manufacturers have entered the market more recently, with some export success.

China is also keen to export, following its spectacular domestic success in developing rapid trains, helped by technology transfers from France, Germany, Canada and Japan. China has won a contract in Turkey with the assistance of soft loans; it is trying to do the same in almost 20 other countries. Although the financial case looks dubious, China and Russia announced a proposal in October to develop a 7,000km line from Moscow to Beijing for $230 billion.

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