Rail Series: China—The New Global Rail Champion

As U.S. investment in rail and transit has shrunk over the decades, other countries have stepped in to fill the gap. Many countries in Europe and Asia—including, most recently, China—have embraced effective policies and invested significant funds in their rail and transit sectors. U.S. spending on rail and transit relative to GDP and population lags far behind that of these global competitors, especially for intercity passenger rail.

Relative to the size of its economy, China’s investments in rail infrastructure dwarf those of all other countries. (See Figure 1.) In 2008, the country spent an unparalleled $12.50 per $1,000 of GDP [German-language PDF]. Several European countries, including Switzerland, Austria, and the United Kingdom, are also making major commitments. In the United States, even combining rail and all other transit infrastructure, the figure is a comparatively tiny $0.78. If private rail infrastructure (mostly for freight purposes) is included, the number rises to a still modest $1.40.

National Rail Infrastructure Investments for Selected Countries

Similar disparities between the United States and other countries are also evident in comparing combined capital and operations spending. For intercity purposes, China spent $66 per capita in 2009, Germany $156, France $141, the United Kingdom $112, and Italy $87. By contrast, the United States spent only $9, although the stimulus funds under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) temporarily raised this figure to nearly $36.

For urban transit infrastructure, Germany has spent $52 per capita in recent years and France plans to spend $57 in the coming decade, compared with a 2010 figure of $40 for the United States. China spends $28 per capita on subway infrastructure alone. For transit vehicle purchases, Germany spends $36, or twice as much as the United States.

Unless the U.S. seriously steps up its commitment to rail and transit, it is likely to continue to fall even farther behind its global competitors. After the mid-term elections, the prospects have hardly improved, given a Republican-dominated House of Representatives, the defeat of Congressman  Jim Oberstar of Minnesota (who used to chair the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee), and the fact that the incoming governors of of Ohio and Wisconsin have said they do not want federal cash for high-speed rail.

As Yonah Freeman of the TransportPolitic blog puts it: “Two years of Democratic control over the White House and Congress led to little serious agreement about how to find federal funding for highways and transit; meanwhile, despite advances in the fields of livable neighborhoods and high-speed rail, those programs may be subjected to considerable rethinking or even elimination after the change in power in the U.S. House.”

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