Propaganda bridge?

Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge

Bridge to nowhere? (Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge)

The new Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge in South China is without a doubt a spectacular feat of engineering, construction, and national infrastructure planning. But… is it necessary? Or is this mega-bridge snaking across the mouth of the Pearl River Delta in fact a $20 billion white elephant?

“The delays in the construction of the bridge had given cities in the PRD region time to greatly develop their port capacity, resulting in a situation where many exporters in the delta no longer need to use Hong Kong,” said chief research officer at the Hong Kong-based One Country Two Systems Research Institute, Fang Zhou. “Other PRD bridges will offer lower tariffs than the new bridge, while existing cargo barges to Hong Kong are even cheaper.”

“In terms of time and convenience, the bridge is not so competitive,” Zhou added. […]

The strongest economic benefit of the bridge is that it can enable producers west of the Pearl River move their goods faster to the Hong Kong International Airport. In 2016, the airport has handled around 4.52 million tons of air cargo, making it the top freight transportation airport worldwide for the seventh consecutive year.

Quoting an anonymous engineer:

“The bridge could have an impact on Hong Kongers’ life style when it opens – there could be more people making the decision to find a job, or even live in China when there are more convenient ways to connect the two places.”

That’s an important point, I think. In addition to the propaganda value of binding Hong Kong closer to the mainland, the very existence of the bridge may generate more demand for cross-border travel. It’s easy to underestimate the future traffic that a brand-new, colossal Chinese infrastructure project will generate. A lot of people were skeptical about China’s high-speed rail system back in 2011, but already by 2015 the Beijing-Shanghai line was earning a profit, claiming 130 million riders (one-tenth of China’s population) that year alone.

The blogger Big Lychee is characteristically scornful:

The vast link, with three lanes in each direction, will be the World’s Biggest and Longest Slab of Concrete Over Sea in the History of the Universe. It will also almost certainly be embarrassingly under-used. Of the three cities it connects, only Zhuhai and its hinterland has capacity for extra traffic; Macau’s road network is totally full, as is downtown Hong Kong’s. Apart from buses going back and forth, and presumably some trucks carrying containers full of Hello Kitty phone cases, it is hard to see who will use it, especially given the ‘fast and convenient’ permit system for car owners.

The South China Morning Post laboriously describes the thing as part of the Greater Bay Area Hub-Zone Branding Concept. [Ed: “Greater Bay Area” is China’s scheme to link together 11 cities around the Pearl River Delta into a gigantic metropolitan region with some 67 million people.] But it is actually the other way round – ‘Bay Area’ is an extension of the bridge project, which came first as a symbol if not means of integrating/absorbing Hong Kong into the Mainland.

This will be the second approx-HK$100 billion pointless-infrastructure fiasco inaugurated within a few weeks, following the West Kowloon High-Speed Rail Vibrating Express Line Hub (which at least has some potential use for those of us with an urgent desire to get to Wuhan). It also comes in the midst of the uproar about the Trillion-Dollar Sandpit Lantau Reclamation Wacko Proposal. We are surely hitting Peak Taxpayer-Wealth Destruction Orgy.

Hong Kong Zhuhai Macao Bridge

A damn big bridge

Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge

The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge

Meanwhile, in Asia, massive infrastructure projects continue to get built:

Chinese President Xi Jinping has officially opened the world’s longest sea crossing bridge, nine years after construction first began.

Including its access roads, the bridge spans 55km (34 miles) and connects Hong Kong to Macau and the mainland Chinese city of Zhuhai.

The bridge cost about $20bn (£15.3bn) and should have opened in 2016. […]

Designed to withstand earthquakes and typhoons, it was built using 400,000 tonnes of steel, enough to build 60 Eiffel Towers.

About 30km of its total length crosses the sea of the Pearl River delta. To allow ships through, a 6.7km section in the middle dips into an undersea tunnel that runs between two artificial islands.

The remaining sections are link roads, viaducts and land tunnels connecting Zhuhai and Hong Kong to the main bridge.

The bridge was first conceived by Hong Kong construction tycoon Gordon Wu in 1983, apparently inspired by the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel in Virginia. Construction started in 2009 and just wrapped up in February. Talk about persistence.

Fun facts:

Special cameras will be on the look-out for drivers on the bridge who show signs of getting sleepy, among other checks – yawn three times and the authorities will be alerted, local media report. […]

And drivers will have to change which side of the road they are on at the crossing. People drive on the left in Hong Kong and Macau but the bridge is Chinese territory and special merger channels have been built to cope with this.

There’s also this ominous bit: “As drivers cross the bridge their heart rate and blood pressure will be monitored. The information will be sent to the bridge’s control centre.” What?

Video from the South China Morning Post:

China’s jurisidiction now reaches into Hong Kong

Hong Kong West Kowloon terminus

New high-speed rail terminus in West Kowloon

Hong Kong’s absorption into the Motherland continues apace with the furtive launch of a “co-location” agreement inside a new high-speed rail station in West Kowloon, under which mainland China extends its jurisdiction to a one million square foot patch in the heart of the city:

Hong Kong and mainland Chinese officials shook hands inside the new station in West Kowloon district on Monday night to mark the new arrangement, which will mean that anyone who commits a crime in the “mainland port area” or onboard trains will be subject to mainland laws, that could include the death penalty for serious crimes.

Big Lychee comments:

It’s not every day you get what might be called a ‘private government ceremony’, but that’s what happened at the One Country Two Systems Sacrificial Midnight Mass deep in the bowels of the West Kowloon Express Rail Station. It was essentially a handover of territory from Hong Kong to the Mainland – an arrangement that would be unconstitutional if the documents that outline the constitution meant anything, but they don’t so there’s no point in worrying about it, and obviously the press aren’t going to be invited. […]

Many Hongkongers look at the high-speed rail link and see little use for it other than a possible one-off jaunt to Wuhan out of curiosity. Its main mission is simply to prove physically that Hong Kong is a part of China, and its secondary purpose is to divert your tax dollars into the construction industry’s pockets. But to the extent it will serve as a transport system, it will be an efficient funnel through which Mainland tourists can be vacuumed up and disgorged into Tsimshatsui and the West Kowloon Culture Hub Zone Project. (Or not efficient, from a baggage point of view.)

End of the road?

Just a bump in the road, or is China’s global infrastructure drive really turning out to be a highway to nowhere? Only time will tell:

CHINA is facing growing controversy surrounding the debts associated with Belt and Road projects. Pakistani politicians are warning that if they are forced to go to the International Monetary Fund for assistance, the financing arrangements of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor will have to be fully disclosed.

At the same time Malaysia’s new Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has ordered a temporary halt to construction work on the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL), and wants to use a planned official visit to China in August to renegotiate some of the terms of the deal.

Meanwhile China has hit back at US media articles on the so called “debt trap” that it has allegedly created in Sri Lanka, with Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang saying that the reports are “a gross distortion of facts”, and are “either irresponsible or engineered by people with ulterior motives”.

These controversies are mirrored by similar concerns across Africa about the build-up of debt associated with the Belt and Road. Nonetheless, many countries still see the Belt and Road Initiative as an opportunity to spur economic development. China clearly views some of the hostile media coverage as something that has to be viewed in the context of the deteriorating relationship with the United States on trade issues.

Hundreds of millions of bullet train trips expected during Chinese New Year

China high-speed rail update:

China already has the globe’s longest bullet-train network, but it’s plowing 3.5 trillion yuan ($556 billion) into expanding its railway system by 18 percent over the next two years, to 150,000 kilometers, or more than 93,000 miles.

Ponder this as the US considers a budget plan that includes $200 billion in federal spending on infrastructure over 10 years. (State and local government and private firms are expected to step in, bringing the total to $1.5 trillion.)

Almost 400 million people — that’s more than the U.S. population — will travel by train over the Lunar New Year, also known as Spring Festival. China’s factories and offices shut down for the week-long holiday, which unleashes the largest migration of humans on the planet. Many of the country’s 1.4 billion citizens return to their hometowns for family gatherings, or, increasingly, are taking the chance to be tourists both at home and abroad.

While the advent of cut-price flights has dimmed the appeal of rail travel in other parts of the world, in China it’s on the rise. Last Spring Festival saw a record 10.96 million trips on one day, and for the first time more people took bullet trains than conventional ones, according to official data.

From state media:

About 390 million trips will be made by train, China Railway said in a news release sent to the Global Times.

China Railway said 57.5 percent of rail travelers will take high-speed trains, up 4.8 percent from previous year.

I’ve been caught up in the Spring Festival travel rush on more than one occasion. It’s not pleasant.

If you can’t get your hands on a high-speed train ticket (starting at $42 for the 409-mile journey between Chengdu and Xi’an), may I suggest some alternative methods of travel?

By car:

China Spring Festival travelOn foot:

China Spring Festival travelBy ferry:

China Spring Festival travelIn uniform:

China Spring Festival travelI wrote about my bullet train ride from Guangzhou to Beijing in 2013 here. In that post, I noted:

Infrastructure in China tends to be unsettlingly vast, so I had a familiar feeling when walking around Guangzhou South Station. Designed by a London architecture firm, the mammoth structure sprawls over some 5.2 million sq ft, with multiple floors for arrivals, departures, and metro lines. A beautiful 1,142-ft-long skylight soars over the departures concourse. The enormous size of the station seemed to be justified by the crowds, which even on a Monday afternoon were substantial. During Chinese New Year the place is probably packed, and usage will surely increase over time as the region continues to boom.

At the time, it wasn’t necessarily clear that there was enough demand to justify this vast high-speed rail buildup. I think that question has been settled in the affirmative by now.

Blast from the past: China at 186 mph

Originally posted March 28, 2013

In early March, I took the bullet train from Guangzhou to Beijing. The route, which opened last December, is the longest high-speed rail line in the world. The train hurtles across the country at an average of 186 miles per hour, linking the southern megacity to the northern capital in a journey of 1,428 miles – roughly the driving distance from Boston to Miami.

The trip takes eight hours or longer (depending on the time of departure), which is far slower than flying, and my second-class ticket cost 862 RMB ($138), which is about the same as discount airfare from Guangzhou to Beijing. On the other hand, rail travel is far more comfortable than flying, and high-speed rail is, after all, awesome. I’ve taken many bullet trains to and from Shanghai, and always enjoyed them, so the chance to ride this astonishing new railway was hardly something I could resist. The only real question was how to get a seat.

Buying a train ticket in China: still Kafkaesque

For the average foreigner, booking a train ticket in China has always been a trying process. As I headed to Guangzhou South Station, I half hoped the gleaming new facility would set a good example for the future by having a straightforward and convenient system for buying tickets.

Nope. As usual, the experience was Kafkaesque. There are two options for buying a ticket at the station. Banks of self-service ticket kiosks, with Chinese and English touch-screen interfaces, allow the traveler to choose the destination, departure date and time, and class of travel. This is almost too easy. But wait! You need to swipe a Chinese ID card in order to make the purchase – those of us holding foreign passports are out of luck. On to option B: the ticket hall.

Ticket hall, Guangzhou South Station

“Bedlam” is a word that comes to mind at many of these ticket halls in China, with their infamous crowds and queues. The one at Guangzhou South Station was better than I had feared, but still stressful. Amazingly, there was no English to be seen in this ticket hall, which would be understandable at a backwater bus stop, but was harder to explain at this huge and vital station. Given the global hype about the new Guangzhou-Beijing line, did it not occur to the Ministry of Railways that some foreigners might actually want to ride the thing?

Before doing anything else, I needed to find the train schedule – but that was easier said than done. At the back of the ticket hall was an information booth with a couple of employees. I asked one of them for a schedule, and he handed me a Chinese-only brochure with a vast chart covered with microscopic text. When I asked him to help me find the trains to Beijing, he pored over the brochure for a minute, then apologized and shrugged helplessly. (The train times were there; I later found them myself, with great difficulty.)

As it turned out, it was easier simply to go back to a kiosk, punch in the preferred day(s) of departure, and look at the available times that showed up. Then I could book my ticket at one of the windows in the ticket hall.

Gigantic scale

Skylight over departure concourse, Guangzhou South Station

Infrastructure in China tends to be unsettlingly vast, so I had a familiar feeling when walking around Guangzhou South Station. Designed by a London architecture firm, the mammoth structure sprawls over some 5.2 million sq ft, with multiple floors for arrivals, departures, and metro lines. A beautiful 1,142-ft-long skylight soars over the departures concourse. The enormous size of the station seemed to be justified by the crowds, which even on a Monday afternoon were substantial. During Chinese New Year the place is probably packed, and usage will surely increase over time as the region continues to boom.

The Chinese government plans to merge Guangzhou with eight other cities in the Pearl River Delta to form a giant megalopolis which will be 26 times the size of Greater London and will contain 42 million people. Guangzhou South Station is a key transportation hub in this emerging super-city; no wonder it’s so big.

Passengers at departure concourse, Guangzhou South Station

Low-altitude flying

The trains themselves are a high-tech marvel. As a benighted American, I am used to old, slow, clattering trains on which you practically expect to see soot-covered men shoveling coal into a boiler. I can never forget the thrilling experience of riding the futuristic maglev to Pudong Airport in Shanghai, with its top speed of 268 mph and its terrifying 12-degree tilts.

The average cruising speed of the Guangzhou-Beijing bullet train, like the Beijing-Shanghai bullet train which I took a few weeks later, is about 186 mph. At Guangzhou South Station and Beijing South Station, passengers present their tickets, then descend on an escalator to an island platform, where their sleek, humming train awaits, like something out of Star Trek.

Bullet train, Beijing South Station

Boarding a bullet train, Beijing South Station

The trains are clean and comfortable, and the rides are extremely smooth. Uniformed train attendants come by wheeling drinks and snacks carts. Seats are equipped with power outlets and free Wi-Fi is supposedly offered. It’s like flying, minus the turbulence and inner ear issues.

The passengers are mostly middle-class, a high proportion of them businessmen. Peasants are not to be found on these trains – they can’t afford the tickets. Everyone seems to be glued to a smartphone, tablet, or laptop watching movies, chatting, or getting work done. As the long journey unfolds, many people doze off.

Bullet train, Beijing to Shanghai

On the Guangzhou-Beijing trip, I enjoyed watching the rugged, green subtropical landscape of Guangdong province flying by:

And here are some views from my later Beijing-Shanghai journey:

At one point, I heard a great whoomp and the landscape outside was suddenly replaced by a white blur. The blur filled the window for a few seconds, then just as suddenly disappeared, leaving me blinking at the landscape again. It had been a train going by in the opposite direction, at a relative speed of about 375 mph.

Average cruising speed

The experience of riding these trains is not always as genteel as the Jetsons-like technology and aesthetics might lead one to expect. The annoyance begins at the station, where buying tickets can be a trial of endurance. At the Beijing station, brusque restaurant staff, like street hawkers, tried to hustle me into their suspect eatery. On the trains, the attendants go about their duties with grim professionalism and rarely smile. Ceiling-mounted video screens offer such fare as a Mr. Bean episode and a trashy American reality TV show.

Previous trips on China’s bullet trains have sometimes been even rockier: noisy, wandering passengers; violent action movies turned up to infuriating volumes on the train’s speakers.

Costly and unnecessary?

These minor annoyances aside, high-speed rail is simply the best way to travel. The experience is so awesome that many Americans who ride these trains for the first time will be thinking: Why can’t we have some?

It is not clear to me that America needs high-speed rail, at least over long distances. Building a bullet train line from, say, Boston to Atlanta probably would not make a great deal of sense, for reasons which Megan McArdle at The Atlantic lays out here and here. For that matter, it’s not clear that high-speed rail makes a great deal sense for China, either; the Chinese Academy of Sciences reported to the State Council in 2010 that the country’s large-scale network may be impractical and unaffordable.

Putting aside the economic issues, what interests me is the sheer energy and ambition behind China’s high-speed rail buildup. Within five or six years, China created the largest and perhaps most advanced high-speed rail network in the world. There are probably more total miles of high-speed track in China now than in the rest of the world combined, and the government plans to double that figure by the end of 2015.

This may prove to be a disastrous misallocation of resources, or it may not. We will have to see. But by any standard, it’s impressive.

To rebuild, we may need a little help from abroad

One of the roadblocks to modernizing America’s decaying infrastructure network is that we quite literally can’t build stuff anymore:

Some transport analysts caution, however, that Trump’s gargantuan vision faces equally big hurdles. Chief among them is that the cutting-edge technology and expertise to build high-speed train systems and massive highway and bridge networks no longer resides in the US.

“Are there any US companies that can build high-speed trains and related infrastructure? Not that I’ve seen,” said Kevin C. Coates, a Washington, D.C.-based advanced transportation consultant.

Other analysts echo the view that American firms aren’t well-positioned to build effective transport infrastructure on the scale of Trump’s plan. This is due to long-term neglect of the sector and a general lack of US funding for public works projects in recent decades.

The irony is that to build America, Trump may have to buy foreign.

Industry analysts say the companies with the abilities to fulfill such advanced projects are mostly Japanese, Chinese and German companies. They include Kawasaki Heavy Industries, China Railway Rolling Stock (CRRC) and Siemens AG.

Will America turn to its creditors for the know-how to rebuild its infrastructure?

(Part 2 of the article series here.)

Can a Sun Hung Kai Mega-Project Bring a Renaissance to Shanghai’s Xujiahui?

Read the rest at Mingtiandi.

SHKP

Xujiahui, a commercial hub in downtown Shanghai that has lost its luster since the 1990s, could win back some of its shine as the local government renovates aging retail centres and Hong Kong developer Sun Hung Kai brings its biggest mainland real estate project to the southwest corner of central Shanghai.