It’s a commonplace that building things is cheap in third-world countries, with low wages, few labor and environmental controls, and lax regulations. The reality is quite different. The difference disappears once one makes sure to do a PPP adjustment; poor countries’ currencies are persistently undervalued relative to their PPP exchange rate, and often also relative to true market value, and this could lead to a distortion in cost structure.
Recall that in Continental Europe, a fully-underground subway line costs anywhere between $110 million and $250 million per km, removing one outlier at each end from my list. Spanish construction costs are generally much lower than the European average, with commuter tunnels coming in well under $100 million/km.
In Delhi, the Metro’s construction costs are very high. The next phase involves 108 km, of which 41 are underground and the rest elevated, and is scheduled to cost 30,000 crores. At current exchange rates this is $6.7 billion, but at the PPP rate it’s $17.6 billion, i.e. $163 million per kilometer. Such a cost is normal by European standards for a fully-underground line; it’s not normal for a line that’s majority-elevated. It is almost as expensive as mostly-above ground extensions of American lines, for example the Silver Line in Washington.
In Beijing, the subway construction costs are also higher than one would expect given low wages, but only about as high as those of Europe. Fully-underground lines are about $150 million per km: these include Line 8 Phase 2 ($2.5 billion/17 km), Line 6 Phase 1 ($4.9 billion/30 km), and Line 14 Phase 1 ($4.5 billion/30 km); the first two are confirmed to be fully underground, and while I can’t find a claim in either direction for the last, all lines it intersects are fully underground. Chinese high-speed rail costs are quite similar to European costs as well: the lines rated at 350 km/h are between $19 and 50 million per km; there’s little tunneling on most lines, but long viaducts, e.g. the $42 million/km Beijing-Shanghai HSR line is 1.2% in tunnel and 86.5% elevated.
In Baghdad, the under-construction above-ground metro line, built by Alstom, is costing $1.5 billion for 22-25 km. With a PPP adjustment, this goes up to $83-94 million/km, depending on whose report of the line’s length one believes. It’s better than India, but not especially good.
Turkey is proving itself to be the Spain of the developing world. Its construction costs are often high per kilometer, but only because Istanbul’s geography is such that lines have to cross under major bodies of water, in seismic terrain. Marmaray, a commuter rail tunnel connecting the European and Asian halves of the city, cost $3.5 billion for 13.6 km of tunnel; while the overall cost, $333 million/km after PPP conversion, is high, it must be weighed against the extreme complexity of the project. The extension of the Istanbul Metro’s M2 line going under the Golden Horn rather than the Bosporus, is $148 million/km, again with PPP conversion. In contrast, the fully underground first phase of M4 is, if I understand the reference, and that’s a big if, $40 million per km (add all three cost amounts, then convert to US dollars); when a line goes underground rather than underwater, Istanbul builds it as cheaply as Madrid. Mainline rail construction in Turkey is also inexpensive: Turkey plans to build 14,000 km of rail, with a substantial portion permitting 250 km/h speeds, for $45 billion; that’s $4 million per km.
Iranian construction costs are low as well. Tehran Metro Line 3, as usual after PPP conversion, is $61 million per km; it is two-thirds underground.
Although there are no third-world lines that have breached $500 million per km, as several first-world lines have, this is probably entirely due to the fact that India, with the highest construction costs, builds its subways mostly above ground. A fully underground Delhi Metro line will probably cost as much as one in Tokyo, despite Delhi’s much less densely built existing network.
The pattern we see here is, first, that the one country on the list following the English legal and political tradition also has English construction costs. And, second, third-world countries do not build rail more cheaply than first-world countries, after adjusting for living costs but not wages; in other words, they spend more of their income on building those lines.
While labor costs in China are lower than in Europe, so is the productivity of labor. If everything in China cost across the board less than in the first world, it would be as rich as the first world; the reason it’s not as rich is precisely that labor doesn’t go as far as in more industrialized countries. China’s rapid growth should be thought of as a process of catching up to what the developed world learned over two hundred years of industrialization that has made it so much more efficient now than it was in 1800.