In the 64-second viral video, 1,500 workers in Eastern China work overnight to replace a stretch of track as part of a station upgrade. It takes them just 8.5 hours. The Jan. 20 clip traveled widely in part thanks to a mistranslation that advertised their achievement as an entire train station rather than a track replacement. To Americans, inured to contractors who take months to fix a broken escalator—and as Donald Trump put it on Tuesday night, a government that takes 10 years to issue a permit to build a road—this was a power-tool ballet. A train station in a night; what could they do in a week?
The video, uploaded by a Chinese media company, epitomizes a rising Chinese motif: We can build things faster and better than you can. China’s status abroad is increasingly associated with its building projects, particularly in Central Asia (where Xi Jinping is spending $150 billion a year on the One Belt, One Road trade project) and Africa (where China’s help on massive state projects has redefined diplomacy, not always for the better). At home, the country’s high-speed rail rebounded from early struggles with ridership, a massive corruption scandal, and a deadly crash in July 2011. It is now a happy symbol of prosperity and modernity, knitting together scores of major population centers and far outperforming the domestic airline business.
But back to the real story behind that video: While the workers aren’t building an entire station (they can’t make concrete set faster than anyone else), it is a crucial renovation to the interlocking—a place where trains can switch between tracks—just outside the main station in Longyan, a Denver-sized city in Fujian, to accommodate a new high-speed rail line. Assembling 1,500 workers, two-dozen steamshovels, and various pieces of rail-borne machinery isn’t just for show, though. The station is busy during the day, Thomas Huang, a transportation consultant in Shanghai, explained to me, meaning that rebuilding at a normal pace would significantly disrupt traffic. “The whole project has been prepared for 2 months,” he wrote to me. “It’s not common in China, but also not the first one.”
What makes this midnight railroad jamboree possible, beyond Chinese labor law? One big factor is pre-fabricated (or prefab) construction. At one point, you can see workers basically pushing a fully assembled track into place. This reflects a practice honed along the entirety of the country’s 15-year-old high-speed rail network, casting slab track at temporary outposts close to the construction site. What appears at first glance to be the instant assembly of a thousand tiny parts has largely occurred off-site, off-camera, and during the day. America does cool things with modular construction too, like put up cranes really fast. But China has taken the technique to new heights: the Chinese firm the Broad Group built a 57-story tower in 19 days using pre-made parts.
But something else is going on here. The Chinese now have more high-speed rail track (more than 12,500 miles) than the rest of the world combined, to say nothing of the country’s mushrooming subway networks. One effect of this has been the development of an enormous amount of expertise, reflected in both human skills, state-of-the-art equipment and facilities, and lots of qualified contractors. It’s a far cry from, say, New York City, which must deal with the same underqualified bidders over and over and open entirely new factories to order its train cars.
While other countries use prefab track, said Gerald Ollivier, a transportation expert at the World Bank, China has built about one French high-speed rail network every year for a decade. That training, he says, “means that many more construction companies in China are well versed in applying such techniques on a routine basis.” It’s a universal lesson that applies to building projects beyond high-speed rail, and beyond China: Practice makes perfect.