The news out of China about its high-speed rail network shows that cost and time overruns aren’t the worst things to happen on big transit and transportation projects.

As the Times reports in a piece on China’s firing of its railways minister, possibly for corruption:

[C]onstruction quality may at times have been shoddy.

A person with ties to the [railways] ministry said that the concrete bases for the system’s tracks were so cheaply made, with inadequate use of chemical hardening agents, that trains would be unable to maintain their current speeds of about 217 miles per hour for more than a few years. …

Strong concrete pillars require a large dose of high-quality fly ash, the byproduct of burning coal. But the speed of construction has far exceeded the available supply ….

Such problems, the expert said, are caused by a combination of tight controls that have kept China’s costs far below Western levels and a strong aversion to buying higher-quality but more expensive equipment from foreign suppliers.

Sure, China builds stuff a lot faster and cheap than we do. It costs $15 million to build a high-speed rail mile there, and maybe as much as $80 million here (we don’t know, because we haven’t built any).

But China’s got some advantages that we don’t want: the government can (usually) seize land more readily and cheaply, and safety rules for industrial labor are far laxer than America would ever want them to be.

Yes, we can do better — but coming close to China on cost and time is not the goal.

(Incidentally, corruption in China’s rail system has nothing to do with whether rail is a good idea or not, and in what circumstances, any more than corruption in the nation’s military would indicate whether having a military is a good idea or not, and in what circumstances.)

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