high speed trainFive years after China’s high-speed rail system opened, it is carrying nearly twice as many passengers each month as the country’s domestic airline industry.

And far from being a white elephant, the high-speed train is helping transform China into a modern, more productive economy.

The New York Times cites a World Bank paper that found that Chinese cities connected to the high-speed rail network — there are already more than 100 — are likely to experience broad growth in worker productivity.

That’s because companies find themselves within a couple of hours’ train ride of tens of millions of potential customers, employees and rivals.

The high-speed train network also works as a tool of regional development, spreading the wealth wider and  helping prevent  local economies from overheating in the more glamorous cities like Beijing and Shenzhen.

So young, highly educated engineers, consultants and designers can work in the big cities and  take frequent day trips to factories and clients in cities with lower wages and land costs, like Tianjin and Changsha.

China is on course to reach 18,000km of high-speed railway by 2015 nearly doubling current line distance.

Can China’s success be reproduced in the West? It already has, of course, although on a much more modest scale.

France pioneered the high-speed train concept with its TGV to bring outlying regions closer to the capital. European neighbouring countries with large such as Germany, Italy and Spain have also jumped aboard. And lets not forget Japan’s pioneering bullet train.

However, China is in a privileged position to truly leverage the technology as the great bulk of its people live along the eastern seaboard in cities separated by distances of less than 500km, which is the ideal distance for a high-speed line.