A Tale of Two Train Systems...

On January 1st of this year, the New York subway opened its long-awaited Second Avenue line with much fanfare. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was on hand, people cheered, and, as The New Yorker’s Nick Paumgarten wrote in a recent piece, the mood on the train that day was positively “giddy.”

The reason for the giddiness is that people thought the Second Avenue would never happen. Since it was first conceived 97 years ago, the Second Avenue subway has seemed a dream that would never come true. The project went through fits and starts over decades – including three separate groundbreakings in the 1970s. Paumgarten said the joke for New Yorkers always was, “I’ll pay you back when they finish the Second Avenue subway.” The New York Times said it was like the Chicago Cubs fan waiting until 2016 for the first World Series win since 1908. Just as relatives and friends died before they could see their beloved Cubs win again, some New Yorkers didn’t live to see the Second Avenue subway.

The humor in the story is that for all the fanfare, celebration, high-fives and hugs, the new Second Avenue line consists of only three new stations -- at 96th, 86th, and 72nd Streets. It is basically a three-station extension of the Q train from 63rd and Lexington. Phase II will take the line to 125th Street, but that isn’t supposed to start for another two years and isn’t fully funded. Phases III and IV, which will go downtown, are probably decades away.

Contrast that story with the high-speed train network that China has built in a comparative blink of an eye. I know it’s not a fair comparison, but it’s a fun one: In less than a decade, China has gone from no high-speed train to a network of 12,000 miles of it -- more than the rest of the world combined. And in case you thought China didn’t set the bar high enough, it plans to lay another 9,000 miles of high-speed track by 2025.

The point is that there’s a big difference in what can get done when you have deep pockets, a single authoritarian decision maker setting priorities, and a lot of empty land to start with.

China was able to build a lot of its network where there was a lot of nothing. The first lines focused on the big cities of Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, but then China turned inland into rural countryside. The hope was that urban-style development would sprout up around more remote stations, and now you can see “thickets of newly built offices and residential blocks rise from the ground” in the middle of nowhere (The Economist). The high-speed train system also has helped develop commuter communities like Kunshan, where the bullet train can get you to Shanghai in 19 minutes for 25 yuan (about $3.60) but homes are 30% cheaper.

New York’s Second Avenue subway line was a different kind of project. There are about 100,000 people per square mile living along the subway route, so blasting deep below ground without disturbing the people above is technically challenging. Workers had to freeze ground that was too soft by drilling holes and inserting a web of refrigeration tubes more than 70 feet long. They had to insert slurry walls and horizontal struts to keep the sidewalks and buildings above from falling in. They had to divert all the utility pipes and cables for water, steam, electricity, natural gas, cable, telephone . . . you get the picture.

China’s accomplishment is monumental, but remember we have yet to see if it will be profitable.  High-speed rail requires population density, and while the Beijing-Shanghai line thrives, much of the system is deep in losses and debt. It may be a long time before we see if China’s railways become growth engine or folly.