NBC Wonders: Can America 'Afford Not to' Spend Billions on High-Speed Rail?

On Thursday's NBC Nightly News, anchor Brian Williams praised China's high-speed rail system and lamented that United States had not done the same: "China is rocketing ahead of the U.S. with high-speed rail. And it has a lot of people wondering how long we can keep chugging along the same old track."

Touting the completion of a new rail line between Beijing and Shanghai, Williams proclaimed: "Which raises again the question, when it comes to trains, why is America, home of the iron horse and the golden spike, still on the slow track?" Correspondent Adrienne Mong filed a report riding the rails across China, touting the high-speed system as "smoother, sleeker, greener than a jet plane."

Mong praised the efficiency of the trains, noting that a trip from the Chinese capital to Shanghai took under five hours, unlike a similar train route in the U.S.: "...that's about the distance between New York and Atlanta. If you took Amtrak, that journey would take you 18 hours."

She expressed amazement at the swift completion of the project: "China spent $34 billion to build this rail link in just over three years, nearly a year ahead of schedule." Mong then wondered: "How did they do it?" CLSA China strategist Andy Rothman provided an answer to that question: "It is a one party regime, so there's no political opposition, there's no rule of law, there's no transparency, so there aren't as many environmental hearings and things like that."

Mong added that, "critics say it costing too much money for the government to build and for passengers to ride." She further reported: "Earlier this year, the railway's ministry chief was fired for allegedly embezzling $30 million, sparking concerns railway authorities might have cut corners at the expense of safety."  

Despite the problems with Chinese high-speed rail, correspondent Tom Costello followed Mong's report with his own about efforts to build a similar transportation network in the U.S.: "If they can build it in Asia, why can't we build it here? Well, in California, high speed rail is on the way." A gushing sound bite was included from Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood: "This is about as American as you can get, good, green jobs, putting Americans to work."

Costello declared: "The Obama administration is moving ahead. The ultimate goal, connect 11 mega-city regions with a network of high-speed track helping to relieve congested roads and airports."

He acknowledged that "it won't be cheap, $53 billion over the next six years, 500 billion in federal, state, and private money over the next 25." And added: "Already Republican governors in Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin have rejected federal high-speed rail money, afraid they'll be on the hook for cost overruns."

After playing a clip of Florida Governor Rick Scott explaining that "the risks far outweigh the benefits," another sound bite followed from Oliver Hauck of Siemens, the company building a high-speed system in California, who asserted: "It would mean hundreds of thousands of jobs. It would mean billions of new economic development." Lahood appeared again and dismissed opposition to the massive government spending: "This is the same debate I'm sure they had 50 years ago when Eisenhower signed the interstate bill."

Costello concluded the segment: "An argument over whether the nation can afford to build a new high-speed network or afford not to."


Here is a full transcript of the June 30 segment:

7:00PM ET TEASE:

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Fast track. China is rocketing ahead of the U.S. with high-speed rail. And it has a lot of people wondering how long we can keep chugging along the same old track.     

7:09PM ET SEGMENT:

WILLIAMS: China has a lot to boast about tonight. First, today it opened the world's longest bridge over a body of water. It is the Qingdao Jiaozhou Bay Bridge, about 350 miles southeast of Beijing. It's over 26 miles long, that's 2 1/2 miles longer, by the way, than the causeway over Ponchartrain in Louisiana, for those keeping score at home. And the estimated cost, at least a billion and a half dollars. This bridge is part of the government's effort to deal with serious traffic congestion in a nation that, of course, has more people than anywhere else in the world.

Another area where China has rocketed ahead is high-speed rail. They unveiled a new system today, Beijing to Shanghai, 800 miles in about five hours, less time than it takes to fly New York to L.A. For China, high-speed rail is what the interstate highway system was to the U.S. back in the 1950s. Which raises again the question, when it comes to trains, why is America, home of the iron horse and the golden spike, still on the slow track? We have two reports tonight, beginning with NBC's Adrienne Mong, who rolled the rails from Beijing.

ADRIENNE MONG: It's smoother, sleeker, greener than a jet plane, the Harmony Express. Clocking 187 miles an hour, connecting China's capital Beijing to its commercial center Shanghai in just under five hours. The Beijing-Shanghai link is 824 miles long, that's about the distance between New York and Atlanta. If you took Amtrak, that journey would take you 18 hours. China spent $34 billion to build this rail link in just over three years, nearly a year ahead of schedule. How did they do it?

ANDY ROTHMAN [CLSA CHINA STRATEGIST]: It is a one party regime, so there's no political opposition, there's no rule of law, there's no transparency, so there aren't as many environmental hearings and things like that. And then they've got the money.

MONG: They also had a little help. 'Our technology is imported from France and Germany,' said this engineer, 'but we developed our own trains.' With that technology, China already has 12 high-speed rail links under construction, hoping to build 10,000 miles of high-speed rail by 2020.

But critics say it costing too much money for the government to build and for passengers to ride.

ZHAO JIAN [PROFESSOR, BEIJING JIAOTONG UNIV.]: It's a technological feat, but I think it's a economic loss.

MONG: Earlier this year, the railway's ministry chief was fired for allegedly embezzling $30 million, sparking concerns railway authorities might have cut corners at the expense of safety.

But maybe, also in a rush to catch up. 'There's still a huge gap between China and other developed countries,' says this railway official, 'we want to be like Americans, we want a strong country and a good life.' A life the Chinese are rushing to embrace. Adrienne Mong, NBC News, on the high-speed rail in China.

TOM COSTELLO: This is Tom Costello. If they can build it in Asia, why can't we build it here? Well, in California, high speed rail is on the way. Construction begins next year on what will eventually be a northern California to Los Angeles line promising 150,000 jobs.

RAY LAHOOD [TRANSPORTATION SECRETARY]: This is about as American as you can get, good, green jobs, putting Americans to work.

COSTELLO: At the moment, America only has high-speed rail in the northeast, from DC to New York and Boston, where century-old tracks and winding routes keep the Acela from ever hitting peak speeds. Across the country, Amtrak right now rents space on freight lines. But to go faster than 125 miles per hour would require an entirely new electrified network of high-speed rail lines.

The Obama administration is moving ahead. The ultimate goal, connect 11 mega-city regions with a network of high-speed track helping to relieve congested roads and airports. But it won't be cheap, $53 billion over the next six years, 500 billion in federal, state, and private money over the next 25. Already Republican governors in Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin have rejected federal high-speed rail money, afraid they'll be on the hook for cost overruns.

RICK SCOTT [GOVERNOR, R-FL]: The truth is this that this project will be far too costly to taxpayers and I believe the risks far outweigh the benefits.

COSTELLO: But in Sacramento, train giant Siemens Engineering is ready to shift from building light-rail trains to high-speed systems.

OLIVER HAUCK [SIEMENS MOBILITY PRESIDENT]: It would mean hundreds of thousands of jobs. It would mean billions of new economic development.

LAHOOD: This is the same debate I'm sure they had 50 years ago when Eisenhower signed the interstate bill.

COSTELLO: An argument over whether the nation can afford to build a new high-speed network or afford not to. Tom Costello, NBC News, Washington.

Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen is a News Analyst for MRC