Opinion: Michigan needs to follow China’s example and develop high-speed mass transit system

Originally appeared at:

By Tom Watkins
Special to The Oakland Press

I am traveling in China and seeing two futures for Michigan and America: one where we rush to play catch-up and the other where we fall even further behind.

China has a public transportation system that works — with trains, 4,000 miles of high speed rail, bus and even public bikes. America seems to be using training wheels and Michigan’s transportation system has never gotten on track!

China is on a mission to continue reshaping its rice paddies, steppes and the mountains around a rail service that will do for the country what President Eisenhower’s Interstate highway system did for America in the 1950s. There are plans to construct a 16,000-mile, high-speed network by 2020. China’s efforts are driving the country forward, facilitating mobility and creating economic and technology development.

Rail service in China has advanced a great deal since my first experience here in 1989, when I shared a jam-packed, non-air conditioned train car along with what felt like the entire population of China on a hard seat bench, if you could find space to sit at all. When I walked through the railcars 20 years ago, I dodged bodies crouched on the floor, sharing the same space with chickens, pigs, sunflower seed shells and big puddles of phlegm.

Today, China, with the world’s longest high speed rail network, is reportedly planning to spend in excess of $1 trillion (U.S.) on expanding its railway system. This is juxtaposed to the U.S., which hopes to build our first high-speed rail line by 2014, less than 85 miles linking Tampa and Orlando. Our efforts are “Mickey Mouse” in comparison.

The Beijing-Tianjin inter-city Express railway can catapult you 73 miles in 30 minutes, reaching speeds approaching 210 mph. The rail line between Wuhan and Guangzhou covers 600 miles in three hours, traveling at 220 mph. The journey on the old train took 11 hours.

The Chinese are notorious for traveling the world and studying best practices then returning to China to put these ideas to work — we would do well to emulate this practice.

Michigan and America need a massive public works strategy, backed up with extensive investment, to ride the rails to increasing prosperity.

Crossing China on the 48-hour Beijing-Lhasa (Tibet) high speed rail in 2007, I had a front seat to the extensive infrastructure investments China is making in rail, tunnels, bridges, roads and train stations that seem to dot the landscape.

I recall a 2008 trip to meet a friend at the Shanghai Railway Station for a day trip to Suzhou. I was feeling rather proud of my mediocre Chinese language skills when I hailed a dadi (taxi) and told the driver to (“qing dai wo qu huo che zhan”) or take me to the train station. He turned to me and responded in perfect English, “Which one?” Thinking of the 25-year-old, now abandoned hulk of the Michigan Central Train Station near downtown Detroit, I took a guess and chose one of the two train stations the dadi driver offered.

There are two modern train stations in Shanghai. And the high-speed Shanghai Maglev Train shoots you from the airport to the congested central city, a distance of 19 miles, in slightly more than seven minutes at speeds that top 268 mph.

Most people in Michigan have never heard of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, Mianyang, Xian, Chongqing, or Changsha. Yet a rail system exists, connecting these once-isolated provinces and Chinese cities.

Training In Michigan

Detroit is one of the only major metropolitan areas in the U.S. and indeed, the world, without a mass transit system. It is not only an embarrassment but it is holding our region and state back economically. Michigan needs to join the 21st century and develop a sensible, affordable and effective mass transportation system.

The lack of a mass transit system is an anchor, pulling down our ability to climb out of the economic pit in which we find ourselves.

From New York, Washington D.C., to the Beijing-Lhasa (Tibet) train, intra-city mass transit and express railways not only move people, but also accelerate the movement of ideas and economies.

If words were rails, we would be competing with China for the most comprehensive intra-country train system. There’s a “whole lotta talk” going on — just not much action here in the “Motor City.

On April 19-21, the High Speed Rail World USA will hold its conference in Washington, D.C. to bring together high speed train operators, innovators, engineers and government leaders to discuss ways to tap the $8 billion in federal money earmarked for bringing high speed rail to the U.S.

It is ironic that for the past three decades Michigan’s powerful political and business leaders drive to the land of “No motorized vehicles” — Mackinac Island — to discuss the need for a modern mass transit system only to produce zip, nada — nothing?

In June, the Detroit Regional Chamber (http://mpc.detroitchamber.com) will once again host its annual Mackinac Policy Conference, ironically marketed as “30 years of Moving Michigan Forward,” even as outgoing Chamber President Dick Blouse laments that his greatest disappointment in his 16 years in Detroit with a one-word answer: “Transit.”

We could build the rails and the trains right here in Michigan, indeed helping to “move us forward” on two fronts. The question remains — will we? Or should we be adopting the Detroit Lions mantra, “There is always next year”?

As China keeps chugging along …

Tom Watkins of Northville is a business and education consultant in the U.S. and China. He served as Michigan’s state superintendent of schools, 2001-2005 and president and CEO of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County, Fla., 1996-2000.