Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

In China, big rail push leading to big IT jobs – UPDATED

It’s not a secret that China is making massive investments in its passenger (and freight) rail service and infrastructure. They’re looking at spending something to the tune of $87.8 billion over two years, and $727 billion by 2020 as well. It might not be too long until we’re talking about “Chinese-style high-speed rail” rather than “European-style” for the fastest and most efficient systems.

So maybe it’s not surprising that IBM is making China home to its new rail technology center. Building and efficiently managing the IT framework behind complex modern rail networks is hard work and serious money. Despite common misconceptions, rail advocates aren’t pushing for quaint choo choo’s.

Robert Goodwin, a travel and transportation analyst at research firm Gartner, estimates that about 3% of worldwide rail spending will go to IT systems.

“Within five years, China is going to have more high-speed rail than the rest of the world combined,” Dierkx said.

But China’s rail system, the primary mode of long-range distance travel for most Chinese, is still beset with huge problems, such as an antiquated ticketing system whereby passengers must be present at a station to purchase a ticket, and massive overcrowding of the system during holidays.

IBM has been a vendor of basic information technology systems to rail projects in China, including the recently finished high-speed rail connecting Beijing to the northeastern port city Tianjin. Its goal with the new innovation center is to expand its services to offer technology and business management consulting for railways.

We can hope that improvements in services like e-ticketing will eventually make their way over here. Train booking still isn’t quite as seemless, straightforward, or integrated as it is for the airlines (and that’s not even saying much). After all, the company’s objective is, ostensibly, global. But the jobs, like the rails, seem to be seem to be flowing towards Chinese soil.

UPDATE: It seems in this post I neglected to really focus on what the Global Rail Innovation Center itself is doing. Short answer? Crunching numbers and developing technology to maximize efficiency and service in advanced rail systems. It’s the sort of work that is going to make the most out of rail’s particular advantages over other modes of travel… and that’s crucial.

American and international roadways have had efficiency experts scrutinizing them over and over for years. Air travel has had a similar advantage. It’s no wonder studies like this (H/T to my friend Eric Handler) come out from time to time questioning if American trains really are more efficient than planes or cars. Apples and oranges. American planes and cars are perpetually being upgraded to newer and better technology. You can’t say that for Amtrak, which is long overdue for new rolling stock, or even most commuter rail and transit authorities.

Hopefully we’ll be seeing some exciting rail tech come out of this place in the coming years. For the full lowdown, check out the press release or, for the web 2.0 oriented, the well-done YouTube video.

Filed under: International High Speed Rail

3 Responses

  1. Spokker says:

    China in general over-invests and under-consumes. America under-invests and over-consumes.

    China’s stimulus is enviable, but they should do more to increase private consumption. That won’t happen until wealth producing assets are put into private hands. But I guess that’s their problem.

  2. Loren Petrich says:

    So Amtrak is ahead of China there?

    In my most recent trips on Amtrak, I bought my tickets at home at Amtrak’s site, though I had to show up at a station to get printed copies suitable for taking aboard the trains.

    Nevertheless, on my most recent trip, I got my printed copy from a Quik-Trak ticket machine, just as I’d done on some airline trips some years back.

    So will China’s railroads start sporting similar machines?

  3. Spokker says:

    If you book Amtrak tickets online you can print a bar code yourself that you can scan with the Quik-Trak machine. I don’t mind inputting my reservation number, though.

    Since I take the Surfliner most often I buy my tickets at the actual machine 95 percent of the time.

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