China vs Japan: the bullet train debate

China is mastering technology at a tremendous pace.  One look at the speed in which it has constructed nearly 10000 km of high speed rail lines (HSRL) at home well reveal its manufacturing excellence.

Most shocking was when it outbid technology leader Japan to construct the 230 mile line HSRL between Los Angeles and Las Vegas in the US. California’s Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, lead actor of the Terminator films, was much impressed about Chinese firm’s ability to construct the bullet train network in his state.

“America has never accepted any such large and high-tech infrastructure from a developing country before,” observed an American analyst.

It was the first time that the US government giving a major infrastructure project to a developing country.

But a notable development was the continuous defeat of the Japanese firms at the hands of Chinese firms in winning bullet train projects.

California was not the first instance where the Chinese defeated its advanced rival Japan in winning high speed rail line contracts. Indonesia recently selected Chinese firms rejecting Japanese offer. Turkey has also finalized an HSRL project with Chinese help. Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and many other countries opted for the Chinese. Brazil has invited China to construct an HSRL between Sao Polo and Rio de Janeiro.

According to China’s Railway Ministry, China’s railway industry is engaged in infrastructure negotiations with 30 countries, with investments in high-speed rail projects at around $470 billion.

In recent years, bullet train networks now became a technology demonstration platform for China. Why China continuously outbids its seniors in winning bullet train projects?

Experts say that China has two advantages compared to its competitors – they build it cheap and in quick time.

 “These guys are engineering driven — they know how to build fast, build cheaply and do a good job,” says a specialist with the World Bank.

Chinese firms which are largely grown out of the Chinese Railway Ministry, make HSRL at nearly one third of the costs of firms from other countries.

They also complete projects at remarkable speed. The 1,318km line between Beijing and Shanghai in just 38 months.

The World Bank’s analytical paper about Chinese skill in HSRL entitled High Speed Railways in China: A Look at Construction Costs, suggests that Chinese are masters of mass production and this enables them to complete projects at very cheap.

Similarly, low cost labor from China especially for high skilled labor also helps to reduce costs. Nearly 150 years back Chinese manual labour was used to construct rail lines in the US. But now, high speed rail lines are built by the Chinese.

Many acknowledge that Japan has an edge in technology; but they are costly and take much time for project completion.

China over the last one decade has mastered mass or large scale producer of rail infrastructure. It possesses bulk of world’s High Speed Lines at home and targets to connect all of its cities with HSRL by 2020 by having a network of 16000 km. China’s experience and continental size has made it as a global leader and inventor in bullet train networks.

Recently, Beijing has made its plan to construct passenger aircrafts – an area where only Boeing and Airbus have succeeded. It is not unlikely that at this speed of technological progress, China can catch up the advanced countries in this field as well.