For me, the difference lies firstly in the power of the Chinese v. American state and secondly in the two cultures of transportation.
Conservative Americans are absolutely terrified of government “interference”–e.g. universal health care. In the meritocracy that American individualism perpetuates, it’s essentially every man for himself. Public works projects are socialist ploys to rob us of our freedoms! This isn’t every American, of course, but American democracy is flawed and skewed towards the wealthiest voters. America likes private industry (that only secretly runs the state…think about the industrial food system, run by just a handful of wealthy corporations that have successfully bagged federal regulatory agencies). In China, the line between private and state-run industry is so blurred that we now have the term “state capitalism.” State investment works well for some things and not so-well for others. Infrastructutural development needs the state. Consumer goods? Maybe not so much.
Aside from federal investment, there is little culture in the United States for public transportation. A few metropolitan hubs have public transport–San Francisco, New York, Boston, others along that vein–but for the most part, Americans fly solo.
Also remember that this Chinese international rail system was really born out of the desire for increased Asian trade. China would like to be the obvious economic hub of Asia, and more importantly, wants access to developing nations’ natural resources. The U.S. does have rails for freight trains, and we also have old lines that run through scenic landscapes–those, too, were laid down by economic incentives.
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