China Won’t Save You

The construction costs of Britain’s just-approved domestic high-speed rail network, High Speed 2, are extreme. The headline costs are, in 2019 figures, £80.7-88.7 billion per the Oakervee review, with one estimate going up to £106.6 billion, all for a system only 530 km in length in mostly flat terrain. This includes rolling stock, but that is less than 10% of the projected cost. At the end of the day, Britain has decided to spend around $200 million per kilometer, a cost comparable to that of base tunnels and mostly-tunneled high-speed lines.

And now the People’s Republic of China has offered to build the entire thing for cheaper with a 5-year timeline, and everyone acts as if it’s a serious offer. So let me dust off my construction costs database and tell you: the PRC won’t save you. There is no alternative to developing good internal cost control. This requires learning from lower-cost countries, but Chinese high-speed rail construction costs are not really low.


Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi are both building metros. Hanoi uses Chinese financing, HCMC uses Japanese financing. Both have very high construction costs – my database has HCMC’s 13% underground Line 1 at $320 million/km, 82% underground Line 2 phase 1 at $535 million/km, and 84% underground Line 5 phase 1 at $590 million/km, whereas Hanoi’s 74% underground Line 2A is $215 million/km and 32% underground Line 3 is $365 million/km.

The system in Hanoi has been plagued with delays. Line 2A was supposed to be operational by 2016. Construction was only completed in 2018, but the line is yet to open. Testing is ongoing, but Chinese experts couldn’t return to Vietnam after the Chinese New Year holiday because of the coronavirus quarantine. The South China Morning Post has compared the Hanoi project negatively with that of HCMC, which is for the most part on time, if expensive.

Like many developing-world cities, HCMC is paying more for a subway tunnel than Japan pays at home; to get to the cost range of HCMC in Japan, one needs to go to complex regional rail tunnels in Tokyo dipping under multiple older tunnels in city center. In that it is no different from Dhaka or Jakarta. The primary explanation must be that importing Japanese technology means using techniques optimized for a high-skill, high-wage labor force and cheap domestic capital, rather than ones optimized for a low-skill, low-wage labor force and expensive imported capital.

But that does not explain why the Hanoi Metro is so expensive. Chinese metros cost less (though not universally – Shanghai’s construction costs are rising fast): I want to say about $250 million/km on average, about the same as the non-Chinese global median, but the actually big set of data is unpublished so you guys can’t nitpick my sources yet. So what’s going on here? Vietnam is poorer than China, but the difference is not so big. It’s about half as rich as the PRC. It’s comparable to Europe, where Romania and Bulgaria are about half as rich as Western Europe, and they have low construction costs, lower than parts of Eastern Europe closer to Western incomes.

Chinese high-speed rail

The construction costs of high-speed rail in the PRC are fairly high, especially in its richer parts. The costs remain lower than those of tunnel-heavy lines like those of Italy, Japan, and South Korea, but by low-tunnel standards, they are high.

There is a perception that Chinese costs are low, but it comes from using the wrong currency conversion. Here, for example, is a World Bank report on the subject:

[P. 39] Figure 4.1 shows the construction cost of 60 projects. The average cost of a double-track HSR line (including signaling, electrification, and facilities) is about Y 139 million/km (US$20.6 million/km) for a 350 kph HSR line, about Y 114 million (US$16.9 million) for a 250 kph HSR line, and about Y 104 million (US$15.4 million) for a 200 kph HSR line. These costs are at least 40 percent cheaper than construction costs in Europe (European Court of Auditors 2018, 35).

The problem is, the exchange rate of $1 = ¥6.75 is incorrect. The OECD’s PPP conversion factor today is much higher, $1 = ¥3.5; for high-speed lines built a decade ago, it would be even higher, about $1 = ¥3.3, with ten years of American inflation since. Using the correct modern rate, the cost is about $40 million per kilometer, which is not lower than in Europe but rather higher. Beijing-Shanghai, as far as I can tell a ¥220 billion project for 1,318 km of which just 16 km are in tunnel, rises to $50 million per km, and more like $60 million per km in today’s money. It’s still cheaper than High Speed 2, but more expensive than every Continental Europe high-speed line that isn’t predominantly in tunnel, like Bologna-Florence.

There are all these longwinded explanations for why the PRC does things cheaper and faster than the first world, and they are completely false. China is not cheap to build in, especially not high-speed rail. The only reason Chinese costs aren’t even higher is that Eastern China is pretty flat. Even then, China has not taken advantage of this flatness to build tracks at-grade to minimize costs. Instead, it has built long viaducts at high cost, in contrast with the at-grade approach that has kept French LGV costs reasonable.

The PRC doesn’t even build things particularly quickly. Total actual construction time from start to finish per line segment is 4-6 years per Wikipedia’s list, which is comparable to recent LGVs. What is true is that China has been building many lines at once, and each line is long, but this is a matter of throughput, not latency. The limit to throughput is money; the PRC made a political decision to spend a lot of it at once as stimulus in the late 2000s and early 2010s, and by the same token, the UK has just made a political decision to spend just less than £100 billion on High Speed 2, in a trickle so that the system will take 15+ years to complete.

Why are they like this?

The myth of hyper-efficient Chinese construction seems never to die; I’ve seen it from the first days of this blog, e.g. then-US Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood in 2012. It relates to a mythology that I think is mostly part of Anglo-American culture, of the tension between freedom and efficiency. The English-speaking world in this mythology is the epitome of freedom, with a gradation of less free, more efficient paces: Germany, then Japan, then finally China. It’s a world in which people’s ideas of what totalitarianism looks like come from reading George Orwell and not from hearing about the real-life Soviet Union’s comic incompetence – the gerontocracy, the court politics, the drunk officials, the technologically reactionary party apparatchiks – all of which was happening in real time in Nazi Germany too, which was fighting less efficiently than the UK and US did.

It’s equally a world in which people think rights Germans and Japanese take for granted, like various privacy protections, do not even register as important civil liberties. I dare any reader to try explaining to a British or American transit manager that really, no, you do not need our data, Central Europe manages to plan better than you without smartcards tracking users’ every move and storing the data in servers with infosec that screams “steal me.” Nor do Americans make much of an effort to import policing regimes from democracies with one twentieth their rate of police shootings per capita.

China’s incompetence is now visible to the entire world, in the form of a virus outbreak that local officials flailed about for a month, too afraid to acknowledge mistakes lest they take the fall for them. And yet it’s easier for American and British business leaders and politicians to point to China as an example to emulate than to Pareto-better France or Germany.

If anything, High Speed 2 is low-key overlearning some French lessons, leading to inferior infrastructure planning – but it’s messing up key details leading to cost explosion, such as “don’t build new signature urban train stations.” But my suspicion is that French and German rail experts will point out all those details. To us, if Britain changes some detail in a way that isn’t truly justified by local conditions, we will point it out – and push back when British blowhards try to explain to use that they do things differently because they’re morally superior to us. British people know this – they know they can’t pull rank. Americans are the same, except even less capable of dealing with other nations as equals than the British are.

The way forward

High Speed 2 is a mess, largely because of the cost. To move forward, talking to China about how it’s built high-speed rail may be useful, but it can’t be the primary comparison, not when Continental Europe is right here and does things better and cheaper. For Asian help, Japan has some important lessons about good operations and squeezing maximum use out of limited urban space. A lot of scope can be removed. A lot more can be modified slightly to connect to regional lines better.

More conceptually, Britain has a problem with costs and benefits chasing each other. If benefits are too high, the political system responds with sloppy cost control, for example by lading the project with ancillary side projects that someone wants or by giving in to NIMBY opposition. If the costs are too high, the political system responds with scrounging extra benefits, for example counting the consumer surplus of high-speed rail travelers as a benefit, by which standard every government subsidy to anyone has a benefit-cost ratio of at least 1.

Bringing in the PRC won’t help. It’s value-engineering theater, rather than the hard work required to coordinate infrastructure and timetable planning or to tell Home Counties NIMBYs that the state is not in the business of guaranteeing their views; there is so much tunneling on the proposed line that isn’t really necessary. None of the countries that builds trains cheaply did so by selling its civil service for spare parts; why would Britain be any different?


  1. yuuka

    I remember throwing you a bunch of data on Chinese construction costs, did that help?

    As for Hanoi and HCMC, I’m starting to think whether local factors like poor soil quality and land acquisition complications do make things worse – and should be factored in before making fair comparisons.

  2. Josh

    This appears not to be a consultancy but a contract offer. If the contract is written appropriately and China offers a cheaper deal, then it is a better deal. How the Chinese will obtain those cost savings or if they will take a loss is not really the UKs problem.

    • yuuka

      I think the issue here is that, you can sign a contract at $X now and make good headlines, but without good cost control don’t be doing the Shocked Pikachu when the contractor tells you in 10 years time that the budget has doubled and it’s not even done.

      And he doesn’t count on the Chinese to be able to stay within budget and time either.

      • Henry Miller

        That depends on the provisions of the contract. Finish in 5 years and we pay $X, else we pay nothing is very different from we will agree to $X until you find a cost overrun. The first SHOULD mean the worst case is you have some areas graded for no cost and which means someone competent can come in and fix it – but you better watch out because it might mean a line that you pay for but it is unsafe to operate. The latter means the incentives is to spiral costs out of control.

        What you needs is a competent builders doing the second: they will have cost overruns but they will only be where they are required. Competent builders doing the first can work as well but you will pay a lot more because they need to figure out the worst case cost overruns and charge for them just in case.

    • Herbert

      China has been known to sell a bunch of stuff at a loss to “get a foot in the door”. Usually in third world countries or countries forced to do nonsensical austerity like Greece…

      Interesting what this might indicate about China’s views on post Brexit Britain…

      • michaelrjames

        Also interesting is whether any contract is nominated in GBP or USD (or, horreur, Euros).

        • Alon Levy

          Yeah, currency risk should add some extra cost (although evidently, Scandinavia-ex-Finland and Switzerland have low costs).

          • Nilo

            Sweden is pegged to the Euro, and the Swiss Franc is not exactly what I’d call an endangered currency considering the government for a number of years desperately tried to devalue the currency.

  3. Gok

    It’s incoherent to compare construction costs if you’re going to adjust for tunneling but then treat viaducts as purely a cost control issue. You’re really hooked on the idea that when the Chinese spend extra money on something it’s senseless totalitarian waste and when Europeans cheap out it’s brilliant liberal cost control.

    • Alon Levy

      I’m treating tunnels as a cost control issue too where they are unnecessary (lol Germany), but this is especially egregious with viaducts in flat terrain. This is not just a Chinese problem – Japan is making the same recommendation for India, which is spending something like $80m/km for the same reason; and California HSR’s cost problems are partly about having too many aerials and building the aerials bigger than necessary.

      • Martin

        Chinese definitely seem to build viaducts at much lower cost than anything else out there.

        Now I’m curious about their lifespan…

      • michaelrjames

        Are you really sure those viaducts are not a result of long-range planning? That north China land between those two massive rivers is flat and in fact regularly prone to floods (the reason they are rich farming land). As well, this is the most populated land and going above it all might just be a lot simpler, even for an autocracy, than building all those under- and over-passes etc, not to mention clearances. Plus, a HSR needs strong protection against intrusion. In India can one really imagine building HSR at ground, especially because they are going to be in the most populated regions?
        All this comes together in the Beijing-Shanghai line which has a very large fraction as viaduct. It is one of the longest lines and traverses the exact territory I mentioned, and connects the two most important cities in China so any compromise–more likely on an at-ground based route–would have caused unacceptable time penalties. It’s not clear to me that, in this context, it is necessarily more expensive not to mention the kind of future-proofing viaducts provide.

        In a very real way, it is a mirror of the late 19th century decision of cities to take their Metro rail underground. Or more recent, even deeper underground (RER, London Crossrail etc) where it is under all the old Metro and all the city’s infrastructure, plumbing etc.

        • Alon Levy

          Yes, I’m sure. If the problem is long-term flooding, berms are as effective and less expensive. The problem is not overpasses or underpasses, because this isn’t a land developed with roads everywhere, but rather one with closely-spaced villages. France has a solution to lines dividing farmland, namely land swap deals; China could do the same. France also fences the right-of-way and has technology to detect intrusion, including objects falling from road overpasses – and most French elites view their own population as more inclined to violate the right-of-way than the Chinese or Indian population.

          • michaelrjames

            Yes, but the viaduct HSR is less disruptive than anything else, including a berm.

            As to the “people in 2050” argument, I seriously believe the future will greatly appreciate this massive building of infrastructure, which doesn’t just become more expensive (well beyond inflation) but also much more difficult politically. This too will happen in China as elsewhere.

            I mean, why do you think they built so much of the Beijing-Shanghai line as viaduct (and IIRC it holds the record top three longest bridges in the world). Incompetence? Insensitivity to cost?

          • Alon Levy

            Foreign consultants sold them on viaducts, I imagine. Siemens was selling viaducts for Transrapid as a positive in its public marketing materials. Meanwhile, France is happy building stuff at-grade and manages to afford LGVs to ridiculously small cities, and Spain manages to build to even smaller ones.

          • michaelrjames

            Well, that’s a theory …. just a weak one.
            Siemens would hardly propose something that would add to the cost of their sole showcase project unnecessarily. It was for the same reasons as I discussed for the Beijing-Shanghai HSR. The Pudong is not only filled with infrastructure, highways and farmland, villages, industrial, but is also floodplain. In fact somewhat spongy swampy ground which added unexpectedly to the cost of the viaducts to stop them sinking.
            Despite that, the claimed cost of building the maglev is outrageously low. So maybe, it showed the Chinese that viaducts weren’t such a bad thing for a very fast train … that’s my theory:-)

          • Herbert

            It’s impossible to build a maglev line that isn’t a viaduct.

            So they did what someone allegedly did to sell white salmon “guaranteed free of pink color”…

          • Tonami Playman

            The Japanese SCMaglev looks like it does not have to be a viaduct with it’s U shaped track compared to the T shaped track of German Transrapid maglev. Just looking at the Transrapid, I’d assumed that it cannot be built without a viaduct, but this quote from Wikipedia page suggests that it’s possible to build the track at grade. Though I can’t imagine how such a track would look like.

            In 2008 Transrapid Australia quoted the Victoria State Government A$34 million per kilometer for dual track. This assumed 50% of the track was at grade and 50% was elevated. In comparison, the 47 kilometres (29 mi) Regional Rail Link to be built in Victoria will cost A$5 billion, or A$105 million per kilometer, including two stations.

          • Michael Noda


            I suspect that what’s really going on with all the viaducts and other grade-separations in China and India, is the flip side of what’s going on with Brightline in South Florida: given a chance, think the planners, the country bumpkins who live along the line are going to wander onto it, legal crossing or no, and splat themselves/their children/their livestock/their cars into the fronts of all those shiny expensive trains. The denizens of the French/German/Japanese countrysides are seen as more orderly, and possibly wiser, so they get berms and at-grade construction. Whether that bit of classism+racism comes from the original foreign consultants, or is a domestic sort of bigotry, I couldn’t possibly say.

            As Brightline shows, it is possible to err in the direction of giving the local people too much credit on this score, so it’s unclear how much of the overbuilding is actually waste, but I’d guess “most of it” is accurate.

          • michaelrjames

            I think a lot of it is the sheer density of people. In India there is also the cow issue (a big part of which is their sacred untouchable nature) plus that Indians do have a habit of walking along tracks and setting up right next to the tracks etc. At the speed of HSR there is no reaction time to speak of.

      • Herbert

        We can discuss till kingdom come whether building a “one size fits all” line is a smart idea and when, but you can’t deny that part of the reason for building the Hanover Würzburg NBS was to relieve a corridor congested with both passengers AND freight and it’s used by freight trains at night in our time, too.

        A passenger only line would’ve been cheaper, no doubt about it. But would it have been cheaper to build that and a new freight line?

      • Andrew in Ezo

        Viaducts are common in Japan because of the geology of the flat portions- the ground tends to be soft as they are primarily the drainage basins of rivers in a predominantly mountainous nation. Cut and fill ROW construction is more vulnerable to subsidence, especially in a seismically active region which also is subject to extreme rainfall (which will increase with continuing climate change). Viaducts using Rahmen construction are standard and are among the most stable in earthquakes and provide relatively free passage underneath. Likely factors also are dense settlement and the strong property rights in Japan, and the awareness of such especially among rural farmers (see Narita AP in Chiba Pref. in the 1970’s)- displacement of property is a touchy subject.

        • anonymouse observer

          Also, berms could sink over time due to weight and loads put on the berms. The sinking could become even more critical when the berms are built on soft soils.

          JNR dealt with sinking berms at about 50 different locations on Tokaido Shinkansen Line, which runs through plains along Tokaido corridor (mostly alluvial plains). They needed to slow down the trains for first year of revenue service (4 hour run between Tokyo and Shin-Osaka instead of 3 hour and 10 minute run) until berms are settled. There is a paper talking about this issue and lessons learned; JNR minimized length of berm section in parts of Sanyo Shinkansen Line going through softer soil and avoided using berms and using viaducts for Tohoku-Joetsu Shinkansen Line:
          地盤地質 と鉄道土木 の50年

          I am not sure how soft the soils along the high-speed rail lines, but they might have similar issues, and that’s why they use viaducts over berms.

  4. Martin

    There might be also something about denial here too which says: what is wrong with us where such a rich country as UK, is incapable of building HSR anymore.

    Applies to California too.

    One final thing to remember is that once you build it, it’ll be around forever. See London’s and NYCs 100+ year old subway.

    One could say that people in 2050 will care as much about the costs of today’s as Trump cares about deficits in 2020.

    • Alon Levy

      People in 2050 will definitely care if DfT ran out of money and couldn’t build a bigger system, same way people in 2020 care that the IND ran out of money in the 1930s and couldn’t build the Second System.

      • Herbert

        They won’t care if cost overruns at Stuttgart 21 prevented this or that highway widening, tho…

    • Henry Miller

      If you build at grade it will be around forever – if you want it to. I know of railroads torn out in the 1960s (long before I was born), but you can still tell where they once went even though cows now graze the former right away. How long will the viaducts and tunnels last before they must be rebuilt at great cost? Of course at grade rail must be rebuilt from time to time, but that is mostly automated and so much cheaper.

      • Herbert

        Bridges made from bricks or stones have proven lifespans in the centuries…

        Steel reinforced concrete, however, does not

        • adirondacker12800

          Pick the right stuff to put in your concrete it can last a long time.


          Pick the wrong aggregate you have problems real fast. Well formulated concrete where the rebar is embedded deep enough lasts a long time. Especially if people don’t come along and dump salt on it. …. they’ve inspected the stuff the Delaware Lackawanna & Western made out of the new wonder material around a century ago and it doesn’t have problems. Some of it is still being used as a busy freight line.

          • michaelrjames

            I assume adirondacker knows that the Pantheon has survived two millenia precisely because it has no (metal) reinforcing. As that Wiki says “No tensile test results are available on the concrete used in the Pantheon” so some of its secrets remain secret. Today all sorts of substitutes to steel rebar are being tried, like bamboo fibre or kevlar fibre etc.

          • adirondacker12800

            Not if you embed deep enough in the right kind of concrete. There’s not much water or oxygen.

          • michaelrjames

            Not if you embed deep enough in the right kind of concrete. There’s not much water or oxygen.

            “not much” is not zero, and rust never sleeps. No concrete is not porous, and it all develops micro-fissures as soon as it is set. There are estimates that even the best reinforced concrete structures won’t last beyond 3 centuries or so. The reality is no one knows–because the experiment is still being performed–but they know it is not going to come close to the Pantheon.
            Interesting to see what they do to modern cables in cable-stayed or suspension bridges: the cables are inside a vacuum or low-oxygen environment to slow down the oxidation.
            This is why most human structures will be gone in a blink of geological time once we are gone or no longer maintaining them. The Pantheon, the Pont du Gard and maybe Pont Neuf etc will outlive all this modernist rubbish, including sadly the Sydney Opera House etc.

            When I first arrived in the UK in the early 80s, one of the then scandales de jour, re infrastructure, was the deterioration of a lot of the motorway system, namely the interchanges and elevated bits due to the “wrong kind of concrete” being used, thus “concrete cancer” (and yes due to the combination of Brit weather and salt etc). It was horrendously difficult & expensive to remedy being the pivot points and structural load bearing points. (The second big scandal was the newly-opened M25 orbital which had as much of its surface closed for repairs as open, for its first decade or two due to poor (cheap) construction. In the 90s a lot of it was closed or running at low speed as they belatedly added extra lanes–because the traffic exceeded design capacity the year it opened. Yep, the Brits never seem to learn. It’s austerity mindedness all the way.)

          • Tonami Playman

            Maybe those end of life wind turbine blades that are beginning to arrive at landfills in volume could be used as a steel reinforcement substitute is some cases.

          • Herbert

            Alkali silica reactions (“concrete cancer”) are an issue in many construction projects in Germany right now. Back when the GDR was around, they used all sorts of quarries as source material, until they found out the hard way… Then they had a “list of quarries not to use for concrete”… But of course when the GDR came down, the westerners thought they knew better and used the bad rocks for concrete…

      • michaelrjames

        If you build at grade it will be around forever – if you want it to. I know of railroads torn out in the 1960s (long before I was born), but you can still tell where they once went even though cows now graze the former right away. How long will the viaducts and tunnels last before they must be rebuilt at great cost?

        Herbert has replied but I was struck by just how contrary to reality this statement is, I had to add my tuppence. Those things built at grade have a much poorer track record of staying “around forever”. For the very reason that they are in the way. Why do you think the world’s Metros went either down (subterranean tunnels) or up (viaducts)? The reason these viaducts will be around forever is that they don’t get in the way of other things; thus even when their primary function is long gone the structures can be repurposed, eg. Paris’ Promenade Plantée (1993) and NYC’s High Line (2006), or the assortment of disused/barely used viaducts around suburban London were stitched into the Overland. I don’t know which was the first but Paris’ Metro Line 6 on viaducts most of its route (across the top of Bir-Hakem bridge with its views of the Eiffel Tower) was built 1900-09 and looks like it is going to last another century.

          • michaelrjames

            Ha, well they might have demolished a lot and buried the tracks but quite a lot of the subway is in fact on viaducts–40% is not underground, I’m guessing a lot of that is viaduct. My main experience is the maybe 20km of the A-train from JFK that is viaduct all the way to the East River (IIRC?).
            I should have used the word “some” .. will be around forever. The High Line is one of them.

            Reminds me that perhaps the most impressive place to see viaducts is London outside the centre. Clapham Junction is a gigantic intersection of dozens and dozens of lines and all appear to be on viaducts. It wouldn’t surprise me if there isn’t a 4-level stack, made of bricks!

        • Henry Miller

          You are missing the point: if you build at grade that implies grade work that sticks around. If you want to restore those missing likes through the cow pasture today it is much cheaper than a all new at grade track because the ground work is still good. Viaducts that are gone leave nothing, tunnels that are gone can be a danger is future generations if they are not filled in, and may not be reusable because it isn’t safe to dig them out and repair them.

  5. yuuka

    >I dare any reader to try explaining to a British or American transit manager that really, no, you do not need our data, Central Europe manages to plan better than you without smartcards tracking users’ every move and storing the data in servers with infosec that screams “steal me.”

    I wonder what the Central Europeans are doing here. Mobile phone/Wifi tracking?

    (which TfL is also doing:

    • Witold Bartnik

      In Warsaw there are smart cards but they only need to be used on the metro. Other than that there is a big survey every 5 years or so where they ask thousands of people about their travelling habits and needs- thus obtaining a pretty detailed origin-destination matrix. The problem with this approach is that the transferring behaviour is not obviously visible, so transfer points have for many years been neglected.

      • Herbert

        Nuremberg metro stations have photoelectric sensors that count everybody who enters or leaves a station… I think they have a pretty good idea about ridership and transfers…

        • yuuka

          That gets me the same data as smartcards, which frankly become useless past a certain point where your network is complicated enough that more often than not there are multiple routes to a destination. Nuremberg’s not there yet, since I’d doubt that there’s much of a difference whether you change between U1 and U2/3 at Hauptbahnhof or Plarrer.

          As mentioned above, on complicated networks transfer behavior starts mattering, and that’s not really possible with smartcard data. Surveys may help, but survey bias is a thing.

  6. Jacob Manaker

    China’s incompetence is now visible to the entire world, in the form of a virus outbreak that local officials flailed about for a month, too afraid to acknowledge mistakes lest they take the fall for them.

    I wouldn’t count on that. Within the first few days of the virus hitting the news, some of my colleagues here in LA all agreed that — and I quote — “it’s a good thing an outbreak like this happened in the one country in the world with the ability to quarantine an entire city.” It sounds to me like they still think China is unfree but efficient.

    • rational plan

      Yes well . it’s bolting the stable door after it has bolted in China. they have spent the first few months silencing people trying to report what is going on and denying there was a problem, letting it get all out of hand. It’s still very much crush all signs of problems at the moment with strict controls on what people can say about what is going on. Meanwhile there is ultra high theatre of trucks spraying disinfectant everywhere to tell everyone it’s all under control.

  7. Martin

    I think the Chinese (and Taiwanese) approach with viaducts is a pretty good solution for densely populated areas (such as the UK or East Asia, in particular when land ownership is very fragmented), which both have less barrier effects and allow better geometry. The alternative is not really ground-based (except for very sparsely populated areas like inland France or Sweden) but tunneling. And in practice, it always seems to end up with tons of tunneling even in a sparse place like Sweden. Viaducts can be mass-produced at a distance, have great economies of scale, and seem much less prone to cost-overruns than tunneling. The US may have low enough population density to make more ground-based rail realistic though.

    In the UK I would, however, prioritize cost control over speed, as the primary issue really is capacity and reliability. If you want ridership, keeping prices down will be more important than a 10% time gain. And the less geometry constraints you have, the more realistic is ground (and partly legacy-based) options. If it costs 100 billion pounds presumably one could probably bring it down by at least half if one makes some speed sacrifices.

  8. RossB

    “The English-speaking world in this mythology is the epitome of freedom, with a gradation of less free, more efficient paces: Germany, then Japan, then finally China. ”

    I don’t think that is the myth. I think the thought process goes something like this, written from an American perspective:

    In the post war period, we ruled the world. We made the best stuff. The Japanese made some things, but it was low quality, cheap stuff (hard to imagine, but “Made in Japan” was once considered inferior). But then it became obvious that the Japanese were making stuff not only as good as us, but better. It didn’t help that at roughly that time, we got hit with an oil crisis. The Kinks (a British Band) probably summed it up best with “Catch Me Now I’m Falling” (although Bruce Springsteen wrote plenty of later hits of a more personal level). It took a while before Americans actually made good stuff again — stuff that is as good as anywhere in the world. Now we live in a world where most manufacturing is highly integrated — much of that Ford is made in Japan, while the Honda is built in the U. S.

    Now China makes a lot of stuff. Like Japan a while go, most of it is low quality. For for a lot things, it doesn’t matter. Furthermore “China” is simply shorthand for “made in Asia, somewhere, by people making very little money”. It is clear that labor practices, as well as income is much lower, which is why textile jobs have largely gone overseas. Thus it is pretty easy for someone to say that China builds roads for fairly cheap because they don’t have the same labor and environmental standards as, the U. S., Canada and Europe. There is some truth to that, of course (although things are changing fast there).

    But in the back of the minds of a lot of people is this idea that China is somehow doing things better. Like the Japanese, they have figured out a way to build things using techniques that are superior. I see no evidence of that — but it is easy to get the wrong idea. When a country sees great improvement, it is easy to assume that life is better there. In the case of China, that clearly isn’t the case (for the vast majority of people) economically, let alone in other ways. But if you are struggling, and other countries seem to be doing better, it is easy to make the wrong assumptions.

    Anyway, I think that is a fairly common attitude.

    • Herbert

      China is at a similar point in its economic development as Germany was circa 1870-1914. Only they’re not led by inbred Hohenzollern with a superiority complex, making their foreign policy slightly less erratic and insane

  9. Herbert

    What’s your opinion on the planned Dresden Prague line? It’s planned to relieve the existing line (which cannot possibly be expanded given its geographic constraints) and providing both a flat and a straight alignment for fast passenger and freight services… this site has an overview of proposed routes; A-C include more tunneling and were proposed by Pirna area NIMBYs whereas D-G were the original plans.

    • Alon Levy

      For a country that’s become a byline for austerity, Germany sure doesn’t value-engineer its infrastructure. How steep is the legacy line that the NBS has to accommodate freight, at 1.25% grades, 200 km/h compromise speeds for passenger rail, and 25 km of tunnel? Why can they not build a passenger-only line at 4% like Frankfurt-Cologne, have 0-2 km of tunnel and 250-300 km/h, and then run freight on the old line freed of intercity rail traffic?

      • Herbert

        The old line runs through a beautiful landscape that has a lot of tourism AND a lot of commuters, so the S-Bahn is full all week and running trains at night is not an option because the valley carries noise and there simply is no space. Plus this is literally the only electrified line from the Czech Republic to Germany. And the fastest way for the landlocked country to get its goods to the north sea ports. River freight isn’t an option, because even at the current levels Germany and the Czech Republic are at odds over how much to regulate the river with navigation concerns being brought forth by the Czechs and environmental concerns brought forth by the Germans…

        The new line HAS TO be workable for freight trains. And heavy ones at that, 750 meters of containers, ideally pulled by a single locomotive. You can look at the Elbe Valley on Google maps or you take the EC and get off at Bad Schandau and hike up to Bastei to get a look in the real world…

        • Alon Levy

          How often does the S-Bahn run? And Germany and Czechia fighting over river barge traffic regulations sounds like organization, not concrete.

          • Herbert

            So is an ore mountain base tunnel a BAD IDEA or actually a good idea if with quibbles about execution in detail?

          • Alon Levy

            Bad idea, I think? I should blog about this, but it looks like a place where separate passenger and freight NBS lines could be cheaper than one combined line, since the passenger line could have high superelevation and 4% grades and the freight line could have sharper curves.

          • Herbert

            The only place where a flat rail line from the Czech Republic to Germany wouldn’t need tunnels is the Elbe Valley. And there’s already a double track electrified line there. And while a passenger line might be possible with less tunneling (running into environmental and NIMBY concerns) I’m not sure it could be done without tunneling… Plus it’s politically easier to build one line than two…

            They could electrify some existing lines (e.g. Cheb Nuremberg and Nuremberg Hof) but those would mean quite a detour in reaching the major ports…

  10. Lee Ratner

    The myth of ultra efficient Chinese construction comes from the fact that they were able to build dozens of complete metro systems in the span of a decade or two. That’s something that no other country managed to build that fast regardless of their wealth or how democratic or authoritarian they were. So the fact that China had only a few not that complete metro systems at the turn of the millennium and now they probably have more metro systems than any other country in the world is something.

    • Herbert

      The countries that industrialized around the end of the nineteenth century had a combined population lower than China’s today and built a similar amount of subway if not more…

      • bernie

        Yeah but back then there weren’t as many cars, meaning that the need for mass transit was greater.

          • Lee Ratner

            In fact, cars were growing rapidly in popularity as more and more Chinese became affluent. In many other countries, both democratic and not, the government basically gave into the preference for cars. China is the only one that I can think of that decided to really build mass transit across the entire country when cars were booming in popularity.

          • Alon Levy

            India is doing the same right now, just at higher construction costs than China, so to compensate it builds more els and fewer subways.

          • Eric

            No, China had plenty of cars in the early 2000s. Beijing’s second and third ring roads were completed as full multilane expressways already in the 90s. The US didn’t have any comparable roads until the late 20s or 30s.

            In general China has been building road infrastructure as rapidly as rail infrastructure. China’s metro systems actually took off relatively late, when it became clear that the large numbers of wide roads being built were still incapable of carrying everyone.

      • Lee Ratner

        The issue is the amount of time it took to build the subways. In 2000, China had five metro systems that were rather puny sized. I rode on the Beijing subway before the big expansion of the system, when China was still a rather poor country. There are now 35 metro systems with at least 12 on the way according to Wikipedia. That’s an astounding amount of building in a very short time period.

        • adirondacker12800

          They decided to build the first subway in 1900 and by 1917 they are opening “Dual Contracts” stations….. They decide to build the IND in the late 20s and large sections of it open in 1933. The southern end of that had a fire in the signal systems. They said it would take four years to fix. Other people then pointed out it took four years to build it…. The hard parts took longer but they opened large parts of it in 1933.

          • Lee Ratner

            Yes, we used to be able to build relatively fast too. I’d note that Los Angeles was booming at this time and decided to go with cars instead of rail. Other American cities followed.

          • adirondacker12800

            They didn’t decide to go with cars exclusively until they ripped the trolley cars out of the median of freeway. And they didn’t build freeway with the trolley cars in the middle until 1940. They even had a short subway for the trolleys.

          • michaelrjames

            Yes, but one (valid) reason for LA’s streetcar demise was precisely because almost all of it was at grade. That’s why most of the world’s streetcars and tramways were ripped out. And why rebuilding them today is so expensive as they must largely have their own ROW to operate efficiently. Now, if it had been built on viaducts …

          • Nilo

            Michael you’re confusing the issue. Streetcar right of way was in streets. In street ROW is very vulnerable to being taken over in the automotive society for cars. But actual at grade right of way that doesn’t follow the street network lasts a very long time. Chicago is more or less cut into Pizza slices by at grade right of way, uber-wealthy Palo Alto is basically chopped in two by the caltrain right of way. In much of auto oriented America commuting patterns are largely shaped by those few limited crossings over the at grade rail right of way. When I was in high school my commute was defined by those limitations.

            Chicago has torn down elevated rail, Rochester has filled in subway tunnel, hell even your cited High Line was partially demolished in 1960. No right of way is impervious to destruction but at grade rights of way are remarkably resilient. The at grade lines used for commuting all over the United States and Europe are largely at grade and have survived longer than any subway line.

          • michaelrjames

            OK, but I think most readers knew what I meant (which is what you wrote). The point about the LA streetcar system is that almost none of it had a ROW thru cross-streets; perhaps I am still misusing the word but I don’t see how a tramway that crosses a street, on the street, is a ROW (perhaps I should use “exclusive ROW”).

            uber-wealthy Palo Alto is basically chopped in two by the caltrain right of way.

            Yes, though I think it is the Bayshore Freeway (101), rather than the railway, which is a virtual Berlin Wall with a few underpasses for local traffic to the eastern poor part. My thesis supervisor was a somewhat eccentric English Cambridge grad who later moved to Stanford and shocked everyone by refusing to pay the then outrageous (this was merely the beginning; the 80s!) rents in Palo Alto and instead lived in a mobile home in East Palo Alto which is the black suburb on the eastside of the freeway, and is one of the US’s poorest districts! Then I also was not impressed with the several professor’s houses in PA itself which were very modest post-war bungalows (and not even the attractive Californian bungalow type; more like what in Australia we’d call “fibro shacks” which is what they reminded me of. Yeah, multimillion dollar fibro shacks.

            But anyway the point here is that these are not viaducts but Alon’s berms which exactly demonstrates the case for viaducts!

          • michaelrjames

            No right of way is impervious to destruction but at grade rights of way are remarkably resilient. The at grade lines used for commuting all over the United States and Europe are largely at grade and have survived longer than any subway line.

            That is only because they were built 20 to 30 years before subways took off, and of course persevered in cities of a size that couldn’t justify the cost of a subway. Both Paris and LA could boast the largest tram/streetcar system in the world but both ended up with zero tramways (until Paris began rebuilding them in the late 90s but only as circumferential routes in the suburbs, a kind of niche if useful function). Melbourne is the only Australian city that retained its trams (mostly without exclusive ROWs) and I’m not sure it was necessarily a good outcome: they say Melbournians love their trams but they are painfully slow, especially at peak hours, IIRC about 15km/h which is barely faster than walking. IMO it caused a long delay in building/improving the Metro (subway) system.

          • Herbert

            You can build a modern tram relatively cheaply if you take away space from cars.

            Of course there are modern cost drivers like low floor vehicles and dampening of the rail to reduce noise, but those are actually things that provide a tangible benefit over how things used to be done…

        • michaelrjames

          The issue is the amount of time it took to build the subways.

          You’d have normalise to population or something to know if that is true. Paris built half its current Metro from 1900 and was only interrupted in finishing it by WW1 with most of the rest built in the 1920s. Considering this was largely “handmade” it does constitute an amazing feat. Even Moscow’s system wasn’t built as fast as this.

    • RossB

      Right, absolutely. That is the myth. The assumption is that other countries, with the same manpower and laws, couldn’t do the same. Of course they could. Just about any country could. There is nothing special in the way that the Chinese have built their subways — they simply put more effort into it (while ignoring labor and environmental concerns). That is why it doesn’t translate.

      If Honda opens a plant in California it does well. American workers are as good as Japanese workers. It is the techniques (that have evolved over the years) that make Honda vehicles so reliable. It translates quite well.

      The Chinese make cheap textiles and electronics. Move those plants to the U. S. (or the U. K.) and suddenly things aren’t that cheap. China has no special expertise — other than maybe mobilizing a huge number of impoverished people under a repressive regime. That is why it translates reasonably well to much of Africa (where repression and poverty is common).

      • adirondacker12800

        Da lousy ‘Murcan ones are about the same. My last one, the service interval for a tune up was 100,000 miles or 10 years. It was having a tiny bit of struggle starting on cold damp mornings at 94,000 so I had it tuned up. It was still running fine when it got so old it wasn’t worth fixing the major problem it was having that coincided with a few other regular things like needing new tires.

        • Eric

          What’s wrong with Addis Ababa light rail? The routes seems not bad (though not perfect) to me. The short supply of vehicles is something can be fixed.

          If you want a total shitshow, look at Abuja.

          • Tonami Playman

            Addis Ababa is a mess because the Shanghai Metro led team that currently runs the operations are clueless as to how to run the damn thing. There is a shortage of rolling stock, but also the reliability of the vehicles is horrendous. The Bogies are constantly failing and the operator blames the overloading of the vehicles by passengers because the bogies can’t handle that much weight. Then they never stock replacement parts and would have to retire cars for several months while they wait on a shipment of the same under-built component from China for it to break under the weight of passengers after only a few months in operation and the cycle repeats.

            And because they are running a POP system, they can’t really rove the cars because they’re always jam packed with people. So both the populace and the operator have given up bothering about ticketing and every just rides for free until the government runs out of operating budget and Shanghai metro will just pack their bags and leave after their 5 year contract comes to an end in 2022. Maybe then Addis Ababa will figure out how to run their system themselves or find someone else who can.

            As for Abuja, don’t even get me started. They have 53km of commuter rail tracks and 10 stations although most of them in the middle of no where bypassing the actual population and of that only the 27 km Airport connector branch is functional where they are using diesel locomotives to pull EMUs nonstop between the CBD station and the Airport station at a 2hr frequency. New DMUs are on their way after which they will finally open the other stations on the line that are currently skipped and increase frequency. The initial plan was to run EMUs at 5 minute frequency, but they cheapened out and are now going for DMUs that are more expensive than the EMUs because CRRC had to custom design a DMU for them since they mostly only produce EMUs.

          • Eric

            Let’s not forget this is Africa. Power outages are the norm not the exception.

            Frequency is a problem which can be fixed. Even if the vehicles will break under a normal load, they can always get different vehicles, this is a relatively small fraction of the construction cost.

            In terms of the route, it is elevated over the main east-west arterial and one of the main north-south arterials, which seems like a pretty good choice. The northwest branch has a weird shape, but it does appear to serve some important markets and a bus station. No these are not the only corridors worth building, but they are definitely some of the corridors worth building, and more can be added later. As for the interlining, that too can be fixed with further extensions.

            The bottom line is they got an almost-entirely-grade-separated light metro system with a reasonable route for $14M/km. The current teething pains do not change that.

          • Alon Levy

            In a developing country with weak currency, rolling stock is pretty expensive. Even BRT runs into that problem – Dar es Salaam’s BRT costs are pretty high because of the imported Chinese buses.

  11. rational plan

    It’s more likely that the true costs of Hs2 will be closer to £68 billion, if it does not suffer a serious cost blow out. The real culprit to the high cost of Hs2 has been the DFT have been determined to pass risk from the public sector to the private sector contractors wanting them to be financially liable for defects over a 25 year time frame. This has led to a rather robust belt and braces response from the contractors, It seems the government has finally cottoned on to this and has announced that it will transferring back to the state.

    Here is a post by NIgel Harris from RAIL magazine from before the review announcement.

    “The fate of HS2 will soon be decided and news of the much-hyped Oakervee Review has started to leak. It seems to recommend that the project should go ahead in full (onwards to Manchester and Leeds from Birmingham) but concedes that potential costs are too high. HS2 now cannot be delivered within its £56bn budget, and £88bn is the more pragmatic figure. I’m the editor of RAIL magazine and we’ve been covering it for over ten years and I’ve noticed how much people aren’t being told. So here’s my attempt to distil the costs story into a few paragraphs.

    In the beginning, HS2 costs were estimated at about £34bn. To guard against cost overruns, HM Treasury loaded heavy contingencies – I recall a figure of at least 40 per cent – which helped drive estimates to around £56bn.

    In 2010, the Treasury stirred in a further assumption that bedevils HS2 still. It assumed construction would achieve 20 per cent efficiencies through new techniques/ technologies. This 20 per cent was fatefully ‘baked into’ the numbers; fatefully because they have not been realised. Critics tell me that infrastructure efficiencies are no better today than when we built HS1 through Kent. This opened in 2007.

    So when reality bit, and everyone agreed that these ‘efficiencies’ just hadn’t emerged, ‘the number’ rose again, to £86bn. This figure is arrived at by looking at the cost of HS1, add in construction industry inflation (higher than normal inflation) and you reach c£88bn for the whole project. Still too pricey, but the cost is realistic, given where we are.

    The ludicrous £106bn ‘price tag’ endlessly reported as fact by national media is no such thing. My understanding is that this is the number that that the still-unpublished Oakervee Report says HS2 could reach only if big problems are not dealt with. One big variable is the contracting and procurement model demanded by the Government for the London to Birmingham part (Phase 1). It is beyond insane because it transfers risk best carried by Government, to contractors, at vast cost.

    Government procurement demanded HS2’s builders remain responsible (crucially, financially liable) for design risk for maybe 25 years. Madness. They might, for example, demand that embankments settle by no more than 25mm (an inch or so) over 25 years. Contractors therefore have to do two things. They must insure against future problems – imagine the cost, given how big those problems might be! – because their company might not even exist in 25 years. They also have to ‘gold-plate’ at vast expense. This means they have to take a ludicrously expensive belt-and-braces approach, building to a far more stringent ‘spec’ than would be normally necessary. They might build an embankment as normal – then sink metre-diameter concrete pillars for maybe 40 metres into the embankment, to ‘nail it in place.’ Maybe add a concrete deck, too, thereby building a viaduct actually inside the embankment. All at eye-watering, pointless, and entirely avoidable expense.

    As I understand it, this has added about a third to the cost. On the whole project? Around £30bn.

    This is what’s jacking up the price of HS2. And it is barely being reported in the national media, despite my magazine banging on about it and my personally tipping off some big-name journalists.

    The National Audit Office seems to be onto this, however, and I understand this barmy procurement model has been quietly dropped from the later part of HS2 (north of Birmingham to Leeds and Manchester). If we returned to a normal procurement model – like the contracts used to make HS1 – we’d start to see a much more realistic figure. Perhaps this is why Sajid Javid is suddenly so in favour of HS2. He’s a former financier and worked in infrastructure deals before becoming Chancellor: he might well have cottoned on to this insane procurement model and ordered it to be dropped for the later parts of the project, north of Birmingham. Javid significantly added that no HS2 alternatives either give better value or are practical, which suggests he’s become intimate with the facts. Even the inconvenient ones.

    So with a bit of financial realism, Boris Johnson could proclaim that his unique and incisive approach has, within weeks, ‘sorted out’ HS2 and driven its potential costs down from the (nonsensical) £106bn figure to something closer to £85bn.

    This isn’t about getting to Birmingham ten minutes faster. It’s a project of rejuvenation on a scale never seen before. The East Midlands have struggled economically: hardly a leisure destination and in business it’s too-often an area you travel through, on the way to somewhere else. Even lottery grants seem lower than elsewhere. With the eastern arm of HS2 and its station at Toton, we will see urgently-required economic, business, social and other benefits. It will be economically transformative for the region.

    When liberated from emotion and political manipulation, both the facts and the politics make it pretty obvious that this new railway is urgently needed. Time to get HS2 done. “

    • Alon Levy

      2 things:

      1. The offloading of risk onto the private sector is a common incompetence in the Anglosphere, and is also partly responsible for the extreme costs of New York subway tunneling. The British government should learn from best rather than worst industry practices and assume all risk itself, without design-build bullshit.

      2. The East Midlands have struggled economically, yes. So has Nord-Pas-de-Calais, even after the LGV Nord opened. But the few blocks around Lille-Europe look nice, so French people don’t stereotype it as much as they do Marseille, even though overall it’s a poorer region. High-speed rail is a transportation project; it will not turn a poor area rich.

      • adirondacker12800

        Hipsters are getting priced out of Bed-Stuy which makes Northern Liberties look a lot better. They even want to turn the Reading Viaduct into the High Line South. Everybody wants to turn things into the High Line. Those things aren’t in Chelsea where people who were priced out of Greenwich Village moved…

      • michaelrjames

        1. Agreed. It has become nothing less than a unaccountable giveaway to the big constructors and their consultants. Just like government doesn’t insure “their” (our) assets because the annual cost would far exceed the actual cost of asset loss/rebuilding etc., there should be zero contingency on big projects. It will give the accountants coniptions but that is good … A 40% contingency on building HS2 is beyond insane.

        2. True-ish but the fact is that for the past 4 decades the French state has put resources into Nord-Pas-de-Calais, obviously including making Lille the centre of Eurotunnel and Thalys, plus the Lille metro (which prototyped the fully-driverless Metro like we see on Paris-M14) and supporting all kinds of activities. For example just in my area, a very ambitious youngish scientist was armtwisted to relocate his lab from Paris to Lille so as to jump very quickly in status and professorship etc. Because he was given INSERM positions to dispense, plenty of young scientists went with him. (Being within an hour on the TGV to Paris helped. Not so different to being in the suburbs of Paris, eg. Orsay or Jouy-en-Josas or Evry all of which have big INSERM/CNRS centres.)

        You must have seen Danny Boon’s comedy Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis (Welcome to the Sticks) (2008) which satirises this northerner schtick, and somewhat inexplicably remains France’s all-time box office winner.

  12. Pedrazo

    Interesting that the World Bank report does discuss PPP in a footnote in the section on fare prices but does not when discussing construction costs.

    Is the PPP basket the right one for comparing construction costs? Or would a construction-oriented basket of raw materials + labor be more accurate?

  13. Benjamin Turon

    Its a good point that the Western Democracies more efficiently and cooperatively fought both WWI and WWII then Germany, Japan, and Italy. The Japanese war effort was laughable, skilled workmen were press ganged on the factory floor to become cannon fodder by the army — to be replaced with school children. The navy was so opposed on the big decisive battle that it ignored the threat of American submarines sinking its already insufficient merchant shipping, in stark contrast to the UK and the US during the Battle of the Atlantic. The army was concerned enough by the losses of its transports that it innovatively built its own aircraft carrier with autogyros to spot and attack submarines — unfortunately for the army their one ship was sunk by a US submarine. Towards the end of the war the army and navy built a coastal radar network to spot B-29 raids — but failing to cooperate they built rival radar stations within a baseball through of each other, instead of spreading them out for greater coverage in a unified defense warning system. Both the army and navy had separate atomic bomb projects — projects that only succeeded in identifying that they got nuked at Hiroshima

    For all the issues that the US Army, US Navy, and Army Air Corp fought over during the war, for all the issues that the US and Britain fought over — the Allies (including the Soviet Union) were a model of cooperative effort in mobilizing their populations and economies, deciding jointly on strategic policy, and pooling resources (Lend Lease + US, UK, Can sharing of atomic research) compare to the Axis Powers.

    I agree that while China is impressive in some ways on the scale of its achievements — its authoritarian system is far less competent than its SciFi cityscapes would seem to indicate. The Soviet Union got into space first by a few weeks by taking more risks that if they had failed they could cover up, but America landed a man on the Moon in the real-time glare of live TV cameras. Dictatorship is not a solution for more efficient building of infrastructure.

    • Benjamin Turon

      Sorry, wish there was a edit function — the Japanese navy was so “obsessed” on the big decisive battle that they ignored the submarine threat to merchant shipping. One US Navy officer is reported to have quipped that the most decisive weapon the US Navy deployed was USN Capt. Alfred Mahan — the 1880-1900s naval theorist who discounted commerce raiding in favor of the decisive clash of battle fleets — because while the Japanese read Mahan’s books and turned it into gospel, the US Navy ultimately ignored them and won the war by grinding down the Japanese military and economy through a series of important but not decisive sea battles, combined with a steady and growing campaign of submarine warfare, air raids, and aerial mining. The Imperial Navy husband their battleships for the big battle, while the rest of the fleet was whittled away as the US fleet grew and grew. In early 1942 the Japanese battle fleet could have crushed the US Pacific Fleet, but it remained in port, except for Midway. By the time the big guns of ships like the Yamato were once again committed to battle off the Philippines in 1944 — the war had long been lost.

      • Herbert

        The Germans in World War I also demonstrated for the whole world how commerce raiding with submarines could lose you a war.

        Now granted, it’s possible they would’ve won had they declared unrestricted submarine warfare in 1914 and never eased up on it, but that’s a hypothetical and there are quite a few hypothetical scenarios in which Germany wins the war, but more in which it gets beaten even more decisively…

    • michaelrjames

      All, or most of that is true, but …
      First, China is not a dictatorship but an autocracy. Though Xi is trying hard to turn it into a dictatorship, the fact is that decisions on issues of national importance are not arrived at by personal whim (ahem, as in Trumpian). Indeed some observers claim the 50m membership of the communist party is a fair simulation of democracy. You can argue with that but it certainly arrives at better decisions than whatever we call the US leadership over the past several decades (oligarcy, timocracy …). I suppose it is an epistocracy/noocracy overlaid with political ideology, in some ways not a million miles from post-war Japan, S. Korea or even Singapore.

      Second, “efficiency” is a very subjective quantity. I’d say that, strip out the false econometric notions of efficiency, and the decision to build its railway and HSR network and city Metros, and to do it as quickly as possible is efficient. The earlier decision to prioritise roads and vehicle manufacture, maybe not so much (but then both the industrial strategy and necessity for roads counter that … pity about the pollution). Then there is the energy issue which China is doing more, building more and researching more in clean energy than the rest of the world combined (which doesn’t mean they will succeed or the west won’t be the tortoise in this race …). Of course they still haven’t equalled France’s building of 58 nuclear generators in about 15-20 years from late 70s to 90s, but compared to the recent history of the Anglosphere, or even Japan …

    • Herbert

      Korolev was by far the more competent engineer (and the better human) than von Braun. Unfortunately he died in the mid sixties and nobody could ever really replace him.

      • Benjamin Turon

        For poor Korolev, the Soviet Union had no Walt Disney or Colliers Magazine. In fact if I recalled correctly the USSR never publicized him, their space program being super secretive and opaque. China’s space program has had the same problem, their first manned space mission failed to have the public publicity impact on Chinese society the government desired because there was no build up, no glare of publicity on the dangerous endeavor, no talk of the bravery of the heros who might be killed; instead the success was announced after it was completed. Its kind of like reading the last chapter of a book, or watching the last 10-mins of a movie, or reading the end result from a Formula One race on the internet.

        Without the thrill and anticipation leading up to the mission launch, people do not become emotionally invested in the story, so they give it little long-term thought. In contrast India gave a big build up for a ultimately semi-failed robotic mission to the Moon, and they seem to still have reaped positive publicity for the making the attempt, because citizens of India had bought into the mission in the months, weeks, and days leading up to the rocket launch. From recent Chinese space missions, they seem to have followed the path of the US in being more open, allowing live-time views of ongoing space missions. There is a risk of broadcasting failure, but the greater engagement will in the long-term lead to more public enthusiasm for the space program.

        • Tonami Playman

          I couldn’t agree more with this. Publicity of these endeavors is just as important as the endeavors themselves. The Indian moon landing attempt was bought up by the entire country with more live viewings than any Cricket match.

        • Herbert

          Of note, China did a live stream of the first flight of the COMAC C919 which arguably gave more insights than Boeing or Airbus usually do…

  14. Matthew Hutton

    Why not build HS2 into Marylebone and send the local trains to Paddington? That would save loads of money wouldn’t it? Then you could build a people mover to Baker Street for tube connections.

    • fjod

      Why would it save enough money? You would still need to rebuild Marylebone, as it’s too short and there aren’t enough platforms. And you’re still going to need a tunnel to get from Old Oak Common to Marylebone. Meanwhile you have only the Bakerloo line direct Underground connection, rather than the Victoria, H+C, Metropolitan, Circle and Northern (both branches when split c. 2030) lines at Euston.

    • Car(e)-Free LA

      Or you could just build it from Paddington and skip tunneling and Old Oak Common altogether.

  15. Coridon Henshaw

    I’m late with this, but a point I’d like to make is that the politics in most countries do not lead themselves towards effective cost control.

    There are very few countries where funneling public money into the private pockets isn’t considered at least equally important as building public infrastructure. Whether the case is China building infrastructure for economic stimulus or mafia states using construction projects to funnel money to the mob, governments have an incentive to give out as much money as is credibly possible without regard to how efficiently it is spent. Stimulus is stimulus regardless of how much useful infrastructure is left behind when the spending ends.

    I’m not saying stimulus spending is illegitimate or even economically unwise (quite the opposite, in fact), just that the incentives behind stimulus spending don’t lead to cheap projects.

    There will be no breakthroughs on cost control unless the political climate changes such that actually building as much infrastructure as is needed/possible takes substantial priority over using construction projects as a way to redistribute public funds.

    • Matthew Hutton

      I think the main problem in Britain is that we aren’t prepared to funnel *enough* money into the hands of the people affected by these projects. HS2 should be properly compensating homeowners whose homes they destroy. There should be a premium to cover poorly thought through improvements and houses in poor condition as well as to give people some compensation for having to buy a new house. They also should be trying to support the communities the railway goes near.

        • Matthew Hutton

          Because if you give the 100 people whose houses you are knocking down an extra £100k each (plus moving costs) as long as they take a deal reasonably quickly then you don’t have to spend 15,000 person years on consultations and arguing the toss in court.

          And if you give the communities that are affected along the way money (and where appropriate stations) then they are more likely to feel they are getting something in return for the project so are less likely to object and the neutral people are more likely to support the project.

          As it stands when you get a car written off the insurance company give you an extra grand just so you shut up and take the deal. This is the same logic – except that with houses people are more likely to do stupid stuff that they like that doesn’t add any value – or they let their houses end up in poor condition so no one wants to buy them.

          • Coridon Henshaw

            Paying Danegeld is seldom an effective strategy. NIMBYs will take however much money they’re given and still abuse the legal process to derail projects that are seen as bringing the wrong types of people into/through/near their communities. The solution isn’t more money for NIMBYs but rather to rationalize the legal process so disputes can be permanently resolved in months rather than decades.

            Completely exempting public infrastructure projects from judicial review would be another option.

          • Matthew Hutton

            I’ve done stuff in community politics before and the people who are most likely to go to the community meetings are the parish councillors and other leading figures in the community. In my experience people are probably generally against infrastructure and big housing developments, however they also often raise legitimate concerns.

            Would building a station in South or West Aylesbury and making the A418 bypass the village of Stone and the roads around really be the end of the world? At sensible infrastructure prices we are probably talking adding £10 million to the HS2 project which hardly seems excessive.

            And in terms of community groups would putting a few hundred pounds towards good causes in the villages close to the route really be that unreasonable to build some goodwill with those people? You’d at least be showing you had some understanding of those people and accepting that the project will cause disruption.

            Maybe if you multiply out for the other stations we’d be talking £50-60 million for the whole southern section, especially as for the Leamington spa/Kenilworth/Coventry station it’d be on the A46 and the outer London station would be on the M25 so there wouldn’t be any disruption to other roads. As it is we are spending 1000x more than that to try and minimise the impact.

          • Coridon Henshaw

            Whatever legitimate concerns local people raise are not raised in good faith. Local people oppose development and infrastructure for ideological reasons and they will throw every imaginable excuse at the wall in the hopes that something will stick. If you address their ‘legitimate’ concerns, they’ll take the olive branch with gritted teeth–because they want to kill the project, not benefit from it–and will then find another excuse to obstruct the project. The proponents will be worse off because they’ll have nothing to show for the money they spent to buy public support, and they will still face the usual decades of NIMBY lawsuits. Attempting to negotiate with people who are not acting in good faith is a sucker’s game.

            It’s also worth mentioning that adding “just one more” station to a high-speed rail line will lead to every group of bumpkins on the route demanding their “just one more” station, and if every group of bumpkins on the route gets their station, the average speed of the line will be on par with that of a bus. If the bumpkins want public services, they should move to an urban area rather than using their votes to try to destroy urban areas.

          • Matthew Hutton

            I’m sure you’re right that some NIMBYs are acting in bad faith. But plenty more people are just concerned that their community will be more congested and that the new development won’t offer them anything in return.

            Plus the lack of anything in return means the majority of local people who are neutral about the house but might want less congestion and/or new stuff in the park won’t go to the meeting.

            To go back to the Aylesbury example where the A418 goes through the middle of Stone, do you really believe anyone in that village (aside from maybe the shop owners if there are any) would be against a village bypass rather than having a presumably decently busy road running through directly past their houses?

          • adirondacker12800

            A new highway in New Jersey opened, after decades of fighting it by NIMBYs and BANANAs. Much lamentation, wailing and rending of garments that the businesses on Main Street would lose the trade from the people passing through. They stopped passing through and it improved traffic and parking enough for the locals that they returned to shopping on Main Street. Business increased. And the people who were stopping twice a month as they were passing through are clever enough to get off the highway twice a month.

  16. rational plan

    Apart from the already demolished homes next to Euston station, there are no other homes to be demolished by HS2, lost of large landowners are going to have a high speed line put across their fields and lots of people will live within a mile of a noisy high speed line. The reason the line is so expensive is they have tunnelled under lots of the more densely populated areas and the rest seems to involve lots of cuttings or earthworks to hide the line from view or stop from being heard. There is a lot of earth moving required. Some one on a train between London and Birmingham will barely see any countryside at all.

    • Matthew Hutton

      Apart from the fact that high speed lines make barely any noise. But yes.

      • Matthew Hutton

        The issue is that the neutral people in Buckinghamshire don’t benefit and neither do the communities so when there are consultations no one is in favour of the project.

        If HS2 gave some money to the community and built some stations in sensible places then they’d have more support from the community so could therefore get away with building a surface line. I’m sure most people in Aylesbury or Kenilworth would support the project if they got a station with the ability to get to Scotland in 2 hours – even if you had to change trains.

        • Alon Levy

          Okay, but France managed to build the LGV Sud-Est with barely any intermediate stops. And France and England are about equally unitary – neither country has German levels of local empowerment, let alone American ones.

          • Matthew Hutton

            Buckinghamshire is really rich and overall South East England is fairly densely populated. The line does avoid houses for the most part but does go pretty close to Aylesbury and Warwick University.

            Why else build pointless tunnels in flat land?

    • Alon Levy

      But cut-and-fill is pretty cheap… at least when done normally, maybe the cuttings are deeper in Britain than in France or the US? (American cut-and-fill is cheap, the reason California and NEC construction costs are high is unnecessarily big viaducts and tunnels because organization and electronics are for euro-weenies.)

      • adirondacker12800

        Senator Clueless from the hinterlands wants to know why it doesn’t stop at PHL, Representative Yokel who has heard about buses wants to know why it’s not going to City Hall and suddenly you have billions of dollars of tunnel across Philadephia. Tell them there are three different ways to get from 30th Street to City Hall their brains melt down because they cannot comprehend the scale of the NEC. Even though they live in one of it’s cities most of the time.
        They’ve been proposing things since 1965. None of the extravaganza has any money. Amtrak puts all the cockamamie stuff in rational people can argue to take it out between now and 2030 when someone is discussing actually funding anything other than replacing stuff that is about to fall apart. Bump up 50 miles of flat straight parts between Wilmington and Baltimore from 135 to 160 it saves 3.5 minutes. Bump it up to 185 it saves 6. Five minutes for Portal Bridge, five minutes for the Baltimore tunnel you’ve saved 15 minutes….. I’d vote for Frankford curve now before the hipsters gentrifying Northern Liberties get out that far. Then a short tunnel in Elizabeth. Four tracks between West Baltimore and Ivy City? Doesn’t matter, I’ll be dead.

      • fjod

        The HS2 route uses very little cut-and-cover tunnel; it’s mostly bored. This is probably due to a combination of nimbyism and geography (half the tunnelled route is built over with little to no room for excavation). The other earth movement costs are the sound barriers and cuttings etc, which are put in for noise / visual mitigation.

        • Alon Levy

          Not cut-and-cover but cut-and-fill, that is small cuttings and earthworks to run straight on terrain that is fairly flat but not perfectly so.

        • Matthew Hutton

          But they could build HS2 under the A40 out of London and under the A34 into Birmingham and build the inevitable park and ride first and restrict traffic otherwise into London/Birmingham on those roads.

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