Challenges and Rewards of Building High-Speed Rail
The development of high-speed rail in a country is often marred with controversy as there are many stakeholders involved in the process. There would be people who would have to make sacrifices and be relocated, an increasing level of debt to be shouldered by the masses, which may further squeeze their standard of living, and airline companies lobbying against the construction as their bottom line may be undercut by the competition faced from the high-speed rail as an alternative form of travel.
Nevertheless, the high-speed rail’s potential to connect cities in the country presents immense opportunities to uplift the lives of millions of people, reducing the wealth gap between residents living in and outside the cities.
The greater connectivity between cities allows people to live outside the city and travel into the city to work. This will likely curb the excessive rise in prices of houses in the city as demand for houses in the city decreases. The demand for houses will spill over into second and third-tier cities in the country, leading to a rise in prices, and helping to reduce the asset wealth gap between residents in the city and outside the city.
A lower cost of living helps to attract and retain talents in a country
A rising cost of living without a corresponding rise in income level is pushing people to move out of a city or country. This phenomenon has exploded ever since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic which has proven that working online is a viable option for knowledge workers. More people can now choose to live in countries that have a lower cost of living while still working with companies that are based in countries that have a higher cost of living, hence wages.
To counter this phenomenon, the cooling down of asset prices or an increase in the supply of accommodations will help to keep the cost of living in check for the working class, especially young working professionals who are at the start of their careers and often command a smaller wage, considering that rent typically takes up to 20 to 30% of their wages in the UK. Keeping rentals affordable is essential to attract young people to take up jobs in the city and perhaps, they may eventually settle down and start a family.
With more people having the opportunity to share the wealth of the country, the country will continue to attract an inflow of migrants who will help to shoulder the debt of the construction cost as well as create more passenger demand. Therefore, a country has to enable its residents to thrive in order to thrive.
Will your country risk falling behind?
With more countries in the World going ahead with the development of high-speed rail as of 2022, countries that are not following suit risk being left behind.
The slew of economic benefits that come along with greater connectivity between cities helps more trades and businesses flourish. Having the state spearhead infrastructure projects to create faster and cheaper transportation means will reduce the logistic cost for businesses and attract the influx of tourists from all over the world.
After watching the videos of the high-speed rail in Turkey and Saudi Arabia, my interest to visit the countries was piqued when I learned that rail tickets are more affordable compared to other countries like Japan and France.
There are lessons to be learned from other countries’ experiences
1. Build between cities that have a high population density
Should countries be jumping on the bandwagon to build high-speed rail? I think every country should construct the high-speed rail within its financial means and strategically kick-start with areas that have a high population density and high traffic fall such as Tokyo to Osaka and Beijing to Shanghai.
As the country becomes more prosperous, the network can be extended if the population growth in other parts of the country is increasing as well. Lest countries may fall into a situation like Japan in which the high-speed rail was still unprofitable even after 40 years of construction because of a high level of government intervention in the forms of building in areas that are more rural and laws that forbid the Japan Railway company from making some workers redundant.
2. Build between cities that are not too far apart
Take the case of the high-speed rail route in China between Lanzhou and Urumqi, it takes 11 hours to travel by high-speed rail as compared to 2.5 hours by plane. The construction cost set China back at 20 billion US dollars and it would take 30 years for the cost to be recovered if all the seats were filled and one-way train ticket costs 400 US dollars each. In reality, train tickets are only selling at 80 US dollars and the trains are hardly operating at full capacity.
In this case, it probably does not make financial sense to be constructing the railway as airplanes may be more resource efficient in transporting people.
I hope I have given you some insights into the high-speed rail development in the World as of the year 2022. I will never forget the first time when I experienced the sheer speed of the bullet train when it ground to a halt at the Shinkansen platform in Osaka. I was standing on the platform and the train caused a tumultuous gush of whirlwind that pounced on my body and threatened to topple my balance. It was in 2015 and I was 25-year-old.
When I went back home, I rallied my two young cousins and made the audacious claim that I would fund and bring them to Japan to experience the bullet train if they were to achieve the goals they had set for themselves. This promise has still not been fulfilled while I had since gone on to visit the Kyoto Railway Museum alone in 2018, with the awe-inspiring memories of the bullet train lingering in the back of my mind. I would highly recommend a visit to the museum as it traces the history of railway development in Japan since modernisation in the early 1900s. I will never forget the anecdote of how some Japanese took off their shoes when boarding the first passenger train in Japan, not knowing how a train works and that their shoes would be left behind.
Moving forward, I hope I would have the opportunity to ride on every high-speed rail in every country and probably do a review of them. I have seeded the idea in one of my students and I hope that we may get a chance to ride the Haramain high-speed rail, which was an engineering marvel during the period of construction, together in the near future. Of course, I would also like to bring my parents along on all these adventures!