Saturday, February 28, 2015
Building a railway is far more meaningful than fighting wars
Wang Mengshu, while being interviewed by a New York Times reporter, said the above words by telephone from Beijing. Professor Mengshu, age 78, graduated from Tangshan Railway Institute, specializing in tunnel and space engineering. He developed and applied composite structures for lining tunnels.
During the 6.2-mile (10-kilometer) Dayaoshan Tunnel Project he advanced the technologies of smooth blasting, deep boring, anchor-bolt shotcrete, drilling pre-grouting, information-based two-way construction and pre-reinforced supporting systems for unstable ground. Dayaoshan Tunnel, longest of 263 on the 1,428-mile (2,3000-kilometer) Beijing-Guanzhou high-speed rail line, is a single-tube with a cross-section of 1,076 square feet of material excavated from above the rails, enough for double-trains, maintaining level and straight alignment, also using bridges, across topography.
He helped investigate the 2011 high-speed rail crash that injured 190 passengers, and killed 40. He specializes in underwater tunnels and as deputy chief engineer of the China Railway Tunnel Group, he heads the experts designing an 80-mile tunnel beneath the Bohai Sea.
He is director of the Tunnel and Underground Engineering Experimental Research Center of Beijing Jiaotong University, and for 20 years has been an elected member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, the highest academic title in engineering science and technology in China.
Several months ago Professor Mengshu told the Beijing Times about his idea for a "China-Russia-Alaska-Canada-US 220-miles per hour railroad train," which would cross the Bering Strait, from Russia to Alaska, using a 125-mile long tunnel to transport passengers and cargo between China and the US in less than two days.
In his December New York Times interview, he said such an initiative is "a wish and a dream of not only China’s railway experts, but also of railway engineers in Russia, Canada and the US, whom I have spoken to." He said, "… building tunnels is not about the length. It has more to do with how deep it is in the sea than length. But why not? We have the technology, and it is a good thing to do. It would benefit generations to come, and the environment. It would connect continents.
"It would be a grand structure of human engineering. It depends on whether governments of the four countries can work together, make this dream come true and leave this amazing legacy for our children."
He admits the Chinese central government is not seriously considering it. He said that the other three countries that need be involved "have not made any public comments".
Professor Mengshu says, "The project is still a concept, at a very premature stage." Though technically feasible, it "demands serious negotiation among the nations concerned, not to mention substantial financial support. It’s too early to talk about the exact route."
When China dismantled its Ministry of Railways, it said farewell to the planned economy and hopes to forever avoid the "great-leap-forward" development approach to railway construction, which resulted in over-investment, excessive construction and aggravated debt risk.
Now the Chinese, because they still have less than half the total railway mileage of that in the United States, are hoping to dramatically expand private rail investment. In 2013, as Professor Mengshu observed, "a shortage of funds is the most urgent problem facing the country’s railway construction."
China, in dissolving the Ministry of Railways, established the China Railway Corporation to take over all commercial functions. China Railway Corporation was capitalized with bonds at US$167.4 billion, after a wide disagreement about the value of existing rail assets. Last month, China Railway Corporation announced that in 2014 alone it invested $132 billion, completing more than 5,236 miles of new railway construction and exceeding all goals for the year.
Sheng Guangzu, general manager of China Railway Corporation, told his annual work meeting, "China has accelerated railway construction both in scale and intensity to fulfill its annual targets in 2014 and the construction drive will continue in 2015."
At the end of six years from the launch of the first high-speed railway passenger service, 9,942 miles of China’s 69,593 total railroad miles are comprised of high-speed rail. By the end of 2015, China’s high-speed rail will have been expanded by another 1,243 miles, which though at a lesser rate, will continue being further expanded through at least 2020. Discussions about improved designs aims at placing of major rail hubs in critical locations, conjoined with metro-transit systems and major airport facilities.
Meanwhile, a separate 1,087-mile coal rail project, the West Inner Mongolia-Central China Railway, which will be partially completed this year, has absorbed $27.12 billion in funding. Prior to being dismantled, the Chinese Ministry of Railroads contributed 20%, for the first time not holding a 50% controlling interest. The other 80% has come from local governments and other entities. Private capital from 11 energy and coal companies contributed 15.7%.
Back in 2012, Professor Mengshu observed, "It would take a long time, say 12 or 13 years, to recover the investment. Whether investors could profit depends on the operating efficiency of the project. Protecting the interest of private investors in state-dominated sectors is an issue that has yet to be solved."
American industrialists, like the key personalities involved with the Washington Corporations, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Union Pacific and our Electric Utilities will undoubtedly be able to offer Professor Mengshu a set of recommendations for an effective system for accelerating the return of private capital.
Our universities will know what they best can contribute to improve construction and operating technologies, as well as identify and obviate environmental concerns associated with high-speed rail. The main needed ingredients seem to be civic and political leadership. Surely we have leaders of Panama Canal caliber at our state and national levels.
Professor Mengshu observes, "That depends on how the governments of the four countries prioritize," and "that depends entirely on politics".
Though the amounts of capital required to construct a connecting railway between China and Montana are staggering, they are insignificant compared to conservative estimates of $1 trillion expended for just the war in Iraq, which we were told "would pay for itself". We stumbled like led sleep-walkers into in Iraq. And to what end?
In the case of railways, the economic and cultural returns, not to mention the avoidance of just one little-bitty war, would be immense. More than the people of any nation, we in the US should profoundly agree that, "Building a railway is far more meaningful than fighting wars."
John B Driscoll, a retired US Army officer, is a former Montana State Legislator and Majority Leader & Speaker whose areas of expertise include electricity policy, terrorism counter action, and distributed learning and knowledge management.