Bullet-train propaganda: China-style vs. California-style

Oct. 22, 2012

By Chris Reed

Last week’s New Yorker features a well-reported but conflicted article that tries to depict China’s all-out push to become the world leader in bullet trains as a vast fiasco of corruption, incompetence and hubris without noting any of the similarities to California’s — or the Obama administration’s — lie-filled push for bullet trains.

Reporter Evan Osnos concludes the July 23, 2011, disaster on “the world’s largest, fastest, and newest high-speed railway” exposed the “ugly underside” of China’s pell-mell race into bullet trains. This paragraph made me snort:

“The Wenzhou crash killed forty people and injured a hundred and ninety-two. For reasons both practical and symbolic, the government was desperate to get trains running again, and within twenty-four hours it declared the line back in business. The Department of Propaganda ordered editors to give the crash as little attention as possible. ‘Do not question, do not elaborate,’ it warned, on an internal notice. When newspapers came out the next morning, China’s first high-speed train wreck was not on the front page.”

In California, our Department of Propaganda doesn’t just include the California High-Speed Rail Authority. Instead, its stars are the news and opinion pages of the Sacramento Bee and the Los Angeles Times.

Given the stakes and the money involved, this may be hard to believe. But these basic facts have never been reported by the Bee and the Times, the most powerful in California:

There was no solid factual underpinning for almost any of the claims made in 2008 about ridership, pollution reduction, job creation and total cost that persuaded Californians to narrowly approve Prop. 1A and provide $9.95 billion in bond seed money for the project.

What’s more, a number-cruncher determined exactly how predictions of immense ridership — 50 percent higher than for all of Amtrak, which operates in 46 states — were manufactured.

As I wrote for City Journal

“Elizabeth Alexis, a Palo Alto finance expert and co-founder of Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design, delved into the methodology and discovered, among other things, that the rail authority assumed that the future cost of gasoline would top $40 a gallon. Alexis also noted that the public-opinion polls that bullet-train backers crafted to gauge potential passenger interest were heavily biased. For example, 96 percent of commuters surveyed were already train riders. But unlike commuters in other states, only a tiny percentage of Californians rides the train.” 

If this happened in the private sector, the SEC and the FBI would be on the warpath. But in California, this amounts to an official secret kept from the public by the Times and the Bee. This amounts to irresponsible incompetence on a grand scale.

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