China versus USA: a Railway Comparison

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USA and China on the rails


Marcos Kleber Ribeiro Felix

USA versus China

The United States of America (USA) and China are currently experiencing a new edition of the Cold War. Just as it happened in the last century, when the USA and the now-defunct Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) competed in every international scenario (economy, sports, science, etc.) over who had the best development model. In this century, the USA and China are repeating the dispute for global prominence.

If the dispute between the USSR and the USA in the last century was in the field of antagonism, proving that socialism was better than capitalism or vice versa, the dispute between China and the USA is in the field of improvement. Copying from the Western capitalist model and transforming the copy into a product better than the original. And in this aspect, in no other field of action, have the Chinese managed to be as efficient as in the railway.

In this article, we will explore the railway infrastructures of the United States and China, which are currently the two largest economies in the world. In our understanding, much due to their investments in railway infrastructures. We will analyze the economic impact of railways in the history of these two countries, current and future trends, and how the USA and China are shaping the future of railway transportation in the world. We will also discuss the challenges each country faces and the innovations that are being implemented to overcome them.

History of the Railway System in the USA

No country in the world has its history so tied to railway development as the United States. The railway transport mode created in England underwent major improvements in the USA. It was in America that the telegraph was definitively adopted to protect and regulate the movement of trains, as well as standardizing time zones. The railroad walked ahead of the colonization of the American interior, for which it paved the way. Also in America, economic regulation had its first milestones, influencing the whole world, until today.1

Origins and Initial Development

The history of the railway system in the United States dates back to the early 19th century. In 1827, the country’s first passenger and freight line, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, was founded, marking the beginning of the rapid expansion of American railways.2 The very first American railways, started in the 1820s, were public enterprises, based on the idea of free access to the tracks, where the government would build the railway and any companies could access the rail lines with their locomotives and wagons. However, due to corruption scandals, overpricing, accidents, and fiscal deficits, the free access model, very common at that time in Europe for the exploitation of inland navigation canals and toll roads, was completely abandoned and replaced by the model in which the same company that builds and manages the railways also operates the trains exclusively. Quickly, American pioneers realized that railways would be more efficient if managed by private initiative in arrangements where the same company would be responsible for the expansion of the lines and operation of the trains.3 The new vertically integrated private companies quickly multiplied and spread throughout the American territory, with different models of locomotives and railway gauges. In 1830, the American railway network with 86 km, was only smaller than the English one with 111 km.4

Railroad Magnates

Some of the first American investors quickly became railroad magnates. They played a crucial role in the expansion and development of the railway system in the USA. Among them were Cornelius Vanderbilt, known as the Commodore, who led the New York Central Railroad, and James J. Hill, whose business expertise helped build the prosperous Great Northern Railway. Other notable names include Jay and George Gould, Edward Harriman, and Collis P. Huntington.5

Immigration and State Development

The immigration of European peasants to the USA also had a significant impact on the country’s development. During the 19th century, millions of Europeans emigrated to the USA, many of whom were peasants in search of a better life. 6 Brought by the companies that owned the railroads, to serve as colonizers of the surroundings of the railway paths, these immigrants settled in various states, contributing to the growth and development of these regions and increasing the demand and profitability of the railways. For example, Virginia was one of the first states to be established, largely due to European immigration. 7

Expansion and Economic Impact

The railroad expansion in the United States was driven by the granting of land around the railroads by state and federal governments to the railroad companies, which then sold it to new settlers. Between 1850 and 1880, 750,000 km2 were granted to the railroad companies, allowing the construction of 23,536 km of tracks. The arrival of the railroads transformed the regional economy, stimulating the growth of agriculture, livestock, and mining.8

First Transcontinental Railroads

The first American transcontinental railroads were significant milestones in the history of transportation in the USA. The first of them, the Pacific Railroad, was built by the Central Pacific Railroad and Union Pacific Railroad, as well as the Western Pacific Railroad, between 1863 and 1869[^1^][1]. This railroad connected the existing railroad network in the eastern USA at Council Bluffs, Iowa, with the Pacific coast at Oakland Long Wharf in San Francisco Bay.9 In total, seven different transcontinental railroads were built, connecting the major American cities to the ports of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

American Railroad Network Evolution

The following table shows the dizzying expansion of the American railroad network in the 19th century:

Table 1: American Railway Expansion in the 19th Century.

Decade Event Network Extension (km)
1820s Beginning of the construction of the first railways 86
1830s Railway expansion in the eastern USA 1,600
1840s Beginning of the expansion to the west 4,800
1850s Continuation of the expansion to the west 14,500
1860s Completion of the first transcontinental railway 53,000
1870s Beginning of the expansion to the south 93,000
1880s Continuation of the expansion to the south 163,000
1890s Expansion of the railways in the south and west 305,000
1900s Opening of the Panama Canal 386,000

Source: Silva (1904).

Decline of the American Railways

The decline of the American railways began with the opening of the Panama Canal, which intensified intermodal competition for cargo transportation between the east and west coasts of the United States. This decline deepened after World War II with massive American investments in highways, which offered a faster and more flexible alternative for the transportation of goods and passengers.10 In addition, excessive regulation of railway activity limited the railways’ ability to adapt to these competitive changes. The evolution of air transport from the 1960s further exacerbated this situation, undermining any possibility of profit in passenger transport, forcing the creation of Amtrak in the 1970s. 13

Impact of the Staggers Rail Act

In response to these challenges, the US Congress passed the Staggers Rail Act in 1980. This Act largely deregulated the American railway industry, replacing the regulatory framework that had existed since the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887. The 1980 Act allowed railways to adjust their rates and services to meet the needs of shippers and their own revenue requirements. As a result, the financial health of the railway industry improved significantly, taking railway companies from successive deficits to profitability and investment recovery.12

Amtrak and the Difficult Quest for Profitability

Despite being a for-profit corporation, the state-owned Amtrak, the main operator of passenger trains in the USA, has not been able to achieve its theoretical goal of profitability. Since the beginning of its operations in 1971, Amtrak has never been able to operate without losses. Although Amtrak was established with the goal of preserving passenger train service in the USA, previously carried out by private freight railway companies, the state-owned passenger company has faced significant challenges, including the need to maintain unprofitable or low-profit long-distance routes, due to competition from air and road transport.13

Current State of American Railways

Currently, the United States railway network is the most extensive in the world, with over 160,000 miles (approximately 257,500 km) of installed tracks. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were more than 400,000 km. Most of this network is owned and operated by freight transport companies, while Amtrak, the main passenger train operator in the USA, operates on 34.4 thousand km of tracks, almost three-quarters of which are leased from private companies.14 There are also some smaller state-owned passenger railways, operating on intercity lines, and also Brightline, the only private American passenger railway, which operates between Miami and Orlando, and has expansion plans for an interstate line between Nevada and California.15

Classification of Railway Companies in the United States

Railways in the United States are classified into three main categories: Class I, Class II, and Class III, based on their size and operating revenue. Class I railways are the largest, with an annual operating revenue of over $1,032,002,71916. There are only four American-owned freight transport companies in Class I, in addition to Amtrak, which is the main passenger train operator (Amtrak, 2021). The American Class I freight transport companies include the BNSF Railway, the Union Pacific Railroad, the Norfolk Southern Railway and CSX Transportation. In addition to these, there are other Canadian or Mexican-owned and managed companies, which own railways in American territory. Notably in Class I, we have the Canadian Pacific Kansas City, the first to operate vertically from Mexico to Canada, and the Canadian National, which operates from the USA to Canada.

Class II railways, also known as regional railways, have an annual operating revenue between $39.2 million and $489.9 million. Examples of Class II railways include the Alabama and Gulf Coast Railway, one among many of the railways of the Genesee and Wyomming group, which owns railways in the USA, Canada, and northern Europe, and the Alaska Railroad. Class III railways, also known as short-distance railways, have an annual operating revenue of less than $46,325,455. There are hundreds of short-distance railways operating in the United States, each serving a specific geographical locality. 17

Here is a table representing some of the main American railways in terms of network extension:

Table 2 – Summary of the main American railways by Classes

Railway Number of Companies Total Extension (km)
BNSF Railway 1 52,000
Union Pacific Railroad 1 51,000
Norfolk Southern Railway 1 30,000
CSX Transportation 1 34,000
Amtrak 1 34,000
Class II Railways (total) 21 50,000
Class III Railways (total) 584 10,000
Total 610 261,000

Sources: Association of American Railroads (2024); Amtrak. (n.d.); Surface Transportation Board. (2022). Surface Transportation Board. (2024).

American Railways Economy

The annual private investments in the American railway industry are significant. Class I railways alone invest at least $25 billion dollars annually to maintain and modernize their network of almost 200,000 km.18 Furthermore, the American Government, during Joe Biden’s administration, recently prioritized investments in infrastructure, promising to invest more than $100 billion in railways, most of it for passenger transport. The freight transport companies record multibillion-dollar profits, transporting energy supplies and crucial industrial materials, however, the same does not occur in passenger transport. Amtrak, the main American passenger railway, lives at the cost of subsidies. In the last fiscal year before the COVID-19 pandemic, Amtrak recorded 32.5 million trips and an operational revenue of $3.5 billion, which however did not cover its costs. Currently, neither the number of passengers (22.9 million trips) nor the revenue ($2.8 billion) have recovered to pre-pandemic levels until the fiscal year of 2022.19 Despite this, future railway investments in freight and passengers seem promising, as we will see later on.

History of the Railway System in China

If it’s true that no country in the world has grown as much in association with railway transport as the USA in the 19th century, it’s also very true that no other country has grown as much as China in the last 50 years, symbiotically associated with the development of railway transport. In this section, we will briefly summarize the history of China’s railway from its modest beginnings to the present day.

China’s First Railways of Foreign Origin

The first railways in China were built by foreigners. In 1876, the British company Jardine, Matheson and Co. built the first railway in China, known as the Woosung Road, which connected Shanghai to Wusong. This railway was built without the approval of the Qing dynasty government, which paid 285,000 taels of silver for the railway and dismantled it in October 1877. The tracks and rolling stock were later sent to Taiwan. However, the construction of this railway marked the beginning of the introduction of railway technology in China. Despite initial resistance and xenophobic sentiment, the importance of railways for economic development and the modernization of China was eventually recognized.20,21,22

Expansion of Chinese Railways until the Mao Era

At the beginning of the 20th century, China began to build its own railways. The first railway designed and built by the Chinese was the Beijing-Zhangjiakou Railway, constructed from 1905 to 1909. This railway marked the beginning of domestic railway development in China. During the two world wars and the Chinese civil war, the expansion of railways in China was interrupted[^3^][3]. In 1945, after World War II, China had 27,000 km of railways, but only about 23,000 km were usable. By 1948, due to the Chinese civil war, the number of usable railway kilometers had fallen to just 8,000 km.23

When Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949, they inherited a railway system that had never been robust and was even more degraded after more than a decade of war. During the Mao era, China underwent a series of political and economic transformations, and railway construction was an important part of these transformations. During this period, China significantly expanded its railway network, with the total length of operational railways increasing from 8,000 km in 1945 to 36,406 km in 1965.24

Deng Xiaoping and the Railway Evolution in China

Deng Xiaoping, a revolutionary Chinese leader, took control of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in December 1978 and remained in power until November 1989. During his tenure, China underwent a series of significant economic and social reforms, which were crucial for the country’s transformation. The modernization of China’s railway network was one of the most notable reforms. Under Xiaoping’s leadership, China witnessed several important milestones in the expansion of its railway network.25
The evolution of China’s railway network in the 20th century was characterized by significant growth, although not as large as that of the USA. The total length of railways in China was only 467 km in 1895, reaching 68,656 km in 2000. There was great progress in the last century, but the growth rate was slow compared to the American one. In the 55 years from 1894 to 1949, China built only 389 km of railways per year. From 1950 to 2000, under the People’s Republic of China, this number more than doubled to 936 km per year.26
In terms of economic growth, China experienced a rapid and impressive economic transformation during Xiaoping’s term, when China’s GDP expanded at an average annual rate of more than 9%. (Vogel, 2011) The railway reform in China at that time was a complex process that involved a series of challenges and opportunities, which resulted in significant improvements in the efficiency and capacity of China’s railway network. These free market policies resulted in rapid and transformative economic growth.27
In 1980, the railway share was 27%, but with the development of civil aviation, highways, and the increase in per capita income, by 2007, this share had already fallen to 6%. Faced with the decline, the Ministry of Railways of China felt deeply threatened and feared losing its dominant position. At the beginning of the 1990s, it tried to initiate changes to introduce high-speed railways in China. The Concept Report of the Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Railway Line was drafted and discussed during the 8th People’s Congress, in 1993, but was set aside due to the huge financial burden it would impose on the public budget. Instead of building high-speed trains, more efforts were made to upgrade existing lines in terms of higher operational speed and introduction of electrification. 28

Development of High-Speed Railway in China

The ambition of the Ministry of Railways of China to develop a network of high-speed trains was not extinguished by the lack of fiscal capacity. Even without a defined timeline for the introduction of high-speed trains in China, the Ministry continued to strive to draft a feasible plan. In 2004, ten years after the first attempt, a medium and long-term plan for the railway network was drafted, including 12,000 km of lines dedicated to high-speed passengers and three high-speed interurban railway systems in the Bohai Bay area, the Yangtze River delta, and the Pearl River delta. However, the plan failed to obtain approval at the executive meeting of the State Council. 29

Despite this, the State Council agreed that the Ministry of Railways could build the Beijing-Tianjin railway, with a length of 117 km, as an experimental line. This was considered due to the potential increase in traffic during the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, during which some football games would be held in Tianjin. This project cost 20.42 billion yuan and was financed by the Ministry of Railways and the municipal governments of Beijing and Tianjin. The high-speed trains were imported and built under technology transfer agreements with foreign train manufacturers. Subsequently, Chinese engineers manufactured the internal components of the train and built nationalized trains that reached an operational speed of 380 km/h. 30

At the end of 2008, China’s Economic Stimulus Program was enacted by the State Council following a global financial crisis. The program aimed to promote economic development through public investments in large transport infrastructures. 31 Since then, high-speed trains have been rapidly developing, extending in all provinces and regions of China, with a volume of 2,122,992 million passengers and 40.99 billion tons of cargo. 32. The speed and scale at which high-speed rail infrastructures are expanding in China far exceed other experiences around the world.33

China’s first high-speed rail route (Shenyang-Qinhuangdao) with a speed of 200 km/h was inaugurated in 2003, almost 50 years after the first high-speed line in the world was opened in Japan in 1964. In July 2013, China had the largest high-speed rail network in the world with 9,760 km. 34 China formally presented its high-speed rail program, which consists of 18,000 kilometers of dedicated passenger lines in the country in the Medium and Long Term Railway Network Plan, in 2008.35

Current Development of High-Speed Rail in China

According to the most recent information, China not only continues to have the largest high-speed rail network in the world, but has been distancing itself from the rest of the world in the stock of this infrastructure. By the end of 2023, China’s high-speed rail network had reached 45,000 kilometers and the railway system as a whole had reached the mark of 159,000 km. Only in 2023 were a total of 3,637 km of railways built, of which 2,776 km were for high-speed trains. There were 3.68 billion passenger trips and 3.91 billion metric tons of cargo transported on the railway system, setting records for Chinese passenger and cargo transportation.36 However, Chinese railway growth did not occur without criticism or jolts, having been marked by corruption scandals that led to the arrest of former Transport Minister, Liu Zhijun, in 2013. 37 The China Railway Corporation continues to operate China’s railway network. In 2024, China’s fixed investment in railway assets was 764.5 billion yuan (approximately 106.8 billion dollars) in fixed assets, an increase of 7.5% compared to the previous year. 38
The updated table of the high-speed network in the world is as follows:

Table 3: High-speed networks in the world compared to China

Country/Region Start of operations Max. Operational Speed (km/h) Length (km)
Japan 1964 320 2,764
Italy 1981 300 923
France 1981 320 2,043
Germany 1992 300 1,014
Spain 1992 300 2,672
Belgium 1993 300 35
USA 2000 240 362
United Kingdom 2003 320 109
South Korea 2004 300 362
Taiwan (China) 2007 300 345
Netherlands 2009 300 125
Turkey 2009 250 688
Europe 320, 300, 250 6,886
Americas (USA) 240 362
Asia (excluding China and Taiwan) 320, 300 3,814
China 2003 350, 300, 250 45,000
Total in the world 59,000

Sources: Statista (2022), Felix (2018)

The ability of China’s central government to emulate economic incentives to railway bureaucrats has been an important factor in the country’s significant railway advancement. China’s economic reform continues to offer legitimized material incentives and the China Railway Corporation continues to diversify activities directly or indirectly related to railways. 39

Comparison of Railway Infrastructures of China versus USA

Now that we have followed a little of the history of railway systems in the USA and China, let’s compare their infrastructures. Check what are the main differences and similarities. The following table exposes the main numbers, in terms of extensions, density, loads and people transported, in addition to investments in the year 2023.

Table 4: Railway comparison between China and USA

China USA
Total active railway network extension (km) in 2023 159,000 225,308
High-speed railway network extension (km) 45,000 735
Railway density (m/km²) 16.6 23.8
Volume of people transported by railways in 2021 2.61 billion 12.2 million
Volume of railway cargo transported in 2022 (trillions of ton-km) 3.59 2.2
Investment made in railways in 2023 $106.8 billion $25 billion

Sources: AAR (2023); China (2022); China (2023); CEIC Data (2023); Felix (2018); Luczak (2021).

The railway infrastructure of the USA is the most extensive in the world, with about 225,308 km of tracks in operation, followed increasingly closely by China, with 159 thousand km. In physical terms, the railway density of the United States is much greater than that of China, since both have territories very close in terms of area, with the area of China only 2.39% larger than that of the United States, but the American network is much larger. In terms of railway density, the USA has a density 43.37% greater than that of China, which means that, in theory, American railways are much more capillarized than Chinese ones, which, paradoxically, has not meant in volume of traffic, neither of loads nor of passengers.

Part of the explanation for this phenomenon is due to the recentness of Chinese railways, more than 80% of them were built less than 50 years ago. They are much more modern than American railways, where more than 80% of them are over 100 years old, having been built with smaller curve radii and less optimized geometries. If in terms of cargo transport, this difference in technology is not so evident, since Chinese railways transport 63% more cargo than Americans, in numbers of passengers, the Chinese transport 213 times more than Americans.

As the numbers show, in the USA passenger rail transport is much less developed than in China. In the USA, Amtrak is the main provider of intercity and interstate passenger services, in China, the Chinese government emulates a myriad of state companies that compete with each other in the search for more advantages and subsidies from central planning. The USA has a limited network of high-speed trains, with the Acela Express line in the northeast corridor, being the only profitable one, and the fastest managed by Amtrak.

China has made significant investments in its railway infrastructure since the 1980s, going from 53 thousand km of installed tracks to about 159 thousand km of installed tracks in 2023. The Chinese have the largest network of high-speed trains in the world, with more than 45 thousand kilometers of tracks. A number significantly higher than all other countries combined. China’s high-speed network continues to expand rapidly, with plans to add thousands of kilometers of new tracks in the coming years. All this investment in high-speed tracks has significantly increased the productivity not only of Chinese railways, but also of their economy. Although most of these passenger lines are not profitable just with ticket revenues, they are viable, largely, by the ancillary revenues captured by the verticalized conglomerates that own the property from the enterprises who build the tracks and trains, to the real estate and builders who urbanize the surroundings of the stations.

Railway systems have a major impact on the economies of countries. Let’s examine how the railway systems of the USA and China affect their respective economies. In the USA, railways play a crucial role in the economy. In 2024, the major railways of the USA supported approximately 1.5 million jobs, nearly $274 billion in annual economic activity, approximately $88 billion in wages, and nearly $33 billion in tax revenues. In addition, freight railways generate billions of dollars in tax revenue, support hundreds of thousands of jobs, and help companies produce goods and services more efficiently.40

In China, the economic implications of the high-speed train network are significant. The network promotes the aggregation of the tertiary industry and contributes to the transformation of the industrial structure from the primary and secondary sectors to the tertiary, as well as advancing the industrial structure. In addition, the high-speed railway network has a more significant influence on the aggregation of the tertiary industry in large cities and high-density cities. With a total of 45,000 kilometers in 2023, high-speed railways can be found in more than 80% of cities in China. Since the opening of the high-speed railway in China in 2008, the economy of the regions along the line has developed rapidly.41

In 2022, China transported more than 4.98 billion tons of cargo by its railways. The total volume of China’s railway cargo transport in 2022 reached 3.59 trillion ton-km. On the other hand, in the United States, the volume of railway cargo transported in 2022 was 2.2 trillion ton-km. Thus, China transports not only more passengers than the USA, but also more cargo by railway than the Americans.

Future of Railway Transport in USA and China

What does the future hold for railway transport? Let’s discuss some future trends and innovations in the field of railway transport from the American and Chinese contexts.

Future of Railway Transport in the USA

The future of railway transport in the USA is closely linked to the bipartisan package of incentives for infrastructure sectors of the US Government and the resurgence of passenger railway transport by private initiative.

Government Investment Package and the High-Speed Train of California

The Biden Government announced investments of $66 billion in several major railway projects, including the first high-speed train projects in the USA, the largest investment package of the last 50 years, since the creation of Amtrak. The selected projects include a high-speed train line between California and Nevada, to be built by Brightline, which will receive $3 billion. The other high-speed train project in California, linking Los Angeles to San Francisco will receive another $3 billion. Improvements also include frequently traveled railway corridors in states such as Virginia and North Carolina. These projects aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create tens of thousands of well-paid unionized jobs. The Biden administration is building a pipeline of railway projects in all regions of the country, aiming to connect more cities to the national railway network and promote economic development. These investments are part of President Biden’s “Investment Agenda in America”, which seeks to rebuild the infrastructure of the USA and position the country to win the global competition of the 21st century.In 2021, President Biden had already announced the American Jobs Plan, which proposes an investment of $80 billion in railways over 8 years. This investment aims to address repairs, modernize existing routes, and expand passenger service throughout the country.42

One of the main beneficiaries of this investment package is the California high-speed train project. This project is an important milestone for rail transport in the US, as it represents the first time that a world-class high-speed train is being built in the country. This is a clear attempt to respond to Chinese advances, albeit very timid compared to the scale and scope of China’s investments.

Rise of Private Passenger Rail Transport and the Brightline Train in Nevada

Brightline, a Florida-based company, is changing passenger rail transport in the US. Brightline is the first private US passenger rail operator in over a century. It began operations in Florida in 2018 and has plans to expand its services to Las Vegas and Los Angeles in the future. One of Brightline’s most ambitious projects is the construction of a new high-speed line between Las Vegas, Nevada, and Southern California. Brightline hopes that trains can reach speeds of up to 200 mph, taking passengers from Las Vegas to Rancho Cucamonga in about 2 hours and 10 minutes, twice as fast as the average car travel time.43, 44

Future of Rail Transport in China

China has made significant investments in its railway infrastructure over the past five decades. China has the largest high-speed train network in the world, with over 45,000 kilometers in 2021 and continues to expand rapidly, with plans to add thousands of kilometers of new tracks in the coming years. According to a plan released by the China State Railway Group, China’s state-owned railway company, the country plans to expand the network to about 200,000 km by the end of 2035, including about 70,000 km of high-speed lines. This represents a 33.3% increase in China’s current railway network. In terms of comparison, it means that China intends to build in the next ten years more than everything that Brazil has already built of railways throughout its railway history. 45

China is at the forefront of technological innovations in rail transport. In 2020, CRRC, a state-owned railway engineering giant in China, presented the prototype of a high-speed electric train for international routes capable of operating at speeds of up to 400 km/h. This train, which is capable of operating in temperatures ranging between -50°C and +50°C, features newly developed gauge-changing wheel sets that will allow it to operate directly in Russia, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan, which use a wider rail gauge than China’s standard of 1,435 mm. The prototype is expected to reach 385 mph (620 km/h), although developers hope to eventually increase this speed to 497 mph (800 km/h). In addition, China is developing other technological innovations in rail transport, such as regenerative braking systems that capture and reuse energy, lightweight materials for train construction, and the use of renewable energy sources to power trains, such as solar or wind energy.46, 47

Similarities between the USA and China

In the 19th century, the US railways adopted a land value capture strategy that was fundamental to their growth and development. The railway companies bought large extensions of unclaimed lands at low prices from state governments and the federal government, and then resold or leased these lands at higher prices to European settlers, even during the construction of the line or after the railway was in operation. This not only provided a source of revenue for the railways but also encouraged settlement and development along the railway routes.48 Furthermore, the railways often became partners in various logistics chains of the products they transported, further increasing their value and profitability. 49

Today’s railways in China have adopted a similar strategy to the American ones of the 19th century. Built in partnership with municipalities, provinces, and the Chinese government, these railways buy large extensions of state lands and then resell or lease this land at higher prices during the line construction process or after the railway is in operation. 50 This not only provides a source of revenue for the railways but also encourages development along the railway routes.51

Moreover, just like the American railways of the 19th century, modern Chinese railways are also partners in various logistics chains of the products they transport. This includes everything from minerals and raw materials to manufactured goods and consumer products. By becoming partners in these logistics chains, Chinese railways can capture even more value and increase their profitability. 52


We have seen that railway transportation has been a driving force for the economic development and connectivity of the USA and China. The tracks have helped shape the economy of many countries, none more so than the USA in the 19th century, with the emergence of steam locomotive technology, and none more so than China, with the advent of high-speed trains, which have become a symbol of progress and efficiency. Throughout our discussion, we addressed various aspects of the US and Chinese railway infrastructures, as well as their economic implications and future trends.

Railways play a crucial role in the US economy, supporting jobs, economic activity, and generating tax revenue. The Biden administration announced significant investment in US railway transportation, including the American Jobs Plan. Brightline is changing passenger railway transportation in the USA, being the first private passenger railway operator in the USA in over a century.

China has the largest high-speed train network in the world, with 45,000 km, with plans to add thousands of kilometers of new tracks in the coming years. China is at the forefront of technological innovations in rail transport, with its companies presenting a prototype of a high-speed electric train for international routes, having long surpassed the USA in terms of freight and passenger transport.

China was able to build the largest high-speed network in the world due to strong government support, significant investments in infrastructure, copying a strategy of verticalization and capture of land value by railway companies, which was initially developed by the Americans in the formation of their territory in the conquest of the American west. All this investment was also only possible due to having a gigantic population densely distributed in the territory, which makes rail transport an attractive option. In addition, China has international aspirations with the One Belt One Road initiative, which aims to improve regional connectivity through a network of transport infrastructures, including railways.

Less than two decades after the invention of the railway business as a profitable venture by the English, the Americans were able to surpass the British in all railway dimensions and maintained the undisputed protagonism for more than a century. Now, almost 200 years after this invention, the Chinese are the first country in the world to challenge the US railway dominance, having already far surpassed them in the transport of people and goods. Ironically, with the same business strategies of the American railway magnates of the 19th Century.

In conclusion, while the USA is starting to invest more in its railway infrastructure after a hiatus of decades, China continues to expand and innovate its already impressive network of high-speed trains. Both countries have much to gain from investing in railway infrastructure, from stimulating economic growth to reducing carbon emissions. However, there are also significant challenges to be overcome, including the cost of construction and maintenance of such networks, the need for advanced technology, and obtaining public and political support for such projects. It is clear that the future of rail transport will be shaped by a combination of these factors, as well as by the decisions made by governments and companies in the coming years.

Author’s Note:

This text was inspired by sections 3.2 and 3.3 of Felix (2018)

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