US & Canada

China at heart of California's railway past and present

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Media captionAlastair Leithead explores a tunnel blasted by workers on the Nineteenth Century transcontinental railroad

High up in the Sierra Nevada mountains in California, half hidden by a snow drift, a disused railway tunnel is a monument to the Chinese labourers who helped build modern America in the 1860s. Now, 150 years later, the Chinese could be returning to build the next generation of US railways, but in a very different role.

Between 10,000 and 20,000 Chinese workers took a year to cut the Summit Tunnel, a key section of the first trans-continental railroad, through solid rock near the town of Truckee.

The American railroad opened up the West, spawning towns and cities all along its route.

But while freight still helps drive the world's biggest economy, passenger trains are often slow and unreliable.

In a country where an American's car is his or her castle, trains have fallen behind.

The cross-country passenger trains are notoriously late.

"We don't go by train very often. But I don't think I've been anywhere looking at a train schedule where suddenly it's eight hours late," said Pat Mastri and her husband Roger, waiting for the replacement bus service in Truckee.

"And guess what - we're not going on the train."

New US line

President Barack Obama has made high-speed rail a national priority, with the first line planned in California seeking to link the cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco.

One of the favourite bids for the project has come from a Chinese consortium, and it is China which has built more high-tech, high-speed rail links than anyone else in the last year.

"It's kind of funny, kind of ironic - what goes around comes around," said Don Davis from the Truckee Donner Railroad Society.

Inside the tunnel, with its coarsely cut rock, which was blasted and dug out by hand, he described how the labourers of 150 years ago lived under the deep snow in the bitter winters, working the whole year around.

"The Chinese were hired by the railroad to be labourers because most people in California at the time were gold miners, or would work for a day, have enough for a pint of whisky, would get drunk and then not come back the next day," Mr Davis said.

Image caption Thousands of Chinese workers blasted and cut the Summit Tunnel in the 1860s near the town of Truckee, California

"The Chinese reputedly had some expertise in building tunnels and they were steady, reliable employees.

"They drank tea," he added.

The conditions were appalling and the pay worse - the Chinese were the only ones who would do it.

"They weren't treated well - kind of like illegal aliens today, if you will," Mr Davis said.

"People didn't want them around. They would burn them out of towns and things like that, but when they were working, the railroad really wanted them."

It was a huge feat of engineering, as will be building a new high-speed rail network across the US.

'Total reversal'

Animations of how the new California high-speed trains may look, based on the bullet trains used in Asia, are impressive.

But in times of economic crisis, engineering the trains will be expensive.

The Chinese bid is also offering financial incentives, as China is a country with money to spend and is particularly keen to break into this money-making US market.

Image caption The new rail line in California will link the cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles

However, Professor Richard White from Stanford University has studied the history of the railroads and is sceptical of whether this new line will be built.

"If this happens, which sometimes I have grave doubts about, it would be an almost total reversal from 150 years ago," Mr White said.

"What you had then was American capital, American technology and cheap Chinese labour," he added.

"The way they are talking about building it now will be American labour laying the tracks, but heavy investments in Chinese technology and even trying to get inputs of Chinese capital.

"It's as if the Pacific has suddenly switched over in 150 years."

It's a story that tells a lot about the changing world order.

California may have the largest Chinese population outside Asia, but it doesn't mean Americans aren't frightened of the speed of change.