SHANGHAI - The 5:38 p.m. bullet train from Beijing to Shanghai hurtled through the exurbs of the Chinese capital on Thursday, and in the No. 4 car stood Gov. Jerry Brown, leaning on a seat back and peering outside for inspiration.
"Look out there," Brown said. "Look at all the building."
In China for a weeklong trade mission, in part to pursue potential rail investors, Brown has been roused by the pace of development here and frustrated by the difficulties he has had bringing high-speed rail and other public infrastructure to California.
"When I get back, it's just going to be one building after another," Brown said, suggesting a spate of construction in the Golden State.
Brown has made building a $68 billion high-speed rail system in California a priority of his administration, and rail officials plan to start construction in the Central Valley this year. Brown told reporters, "We've got to step up the pace in California," and he suggested his office's current schedule for high-speed rail may be too slow.
"Oh yeah, no question," Brown said as the train he was riding approached speeds of 190 miles per hour.
Asked if he planned to accelerate the schedule of the already-controversial effort, Brown said, "I don't want to say that yet, but I'm going to look for every way that I can."
State rail officials traveling with the governor met privately this week with potential Chinese investors in the rail project, including the Chinese Investment Corp., a major sovereign wealth fund. Brown was accompanied on the train by representatives of Tangshan Railway Vehicle Co., a Chinese company that builds railroad locomotives and rolling stock.
"What they've done here is impressive," said Dan Richard, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority board.
In a staggering burst of activity, Chinese officials built more than 5,000 miles of track in just over five years, vastly improving transportation infrastructure in China. The program was made possible in part by China's one-party political system and its lack of environmental and other regulatory impediments that Brown faces in California.
"They think so big," Brown said before leaving for China. "I mean, just build 5,000 miles. I mean, to some of those folks who say, 'God, you're building a few hundred miles of high-speed rail,' it's almost like you're Don Quixote or something."
Yet even in China, high-speed rail is not without controversy. Public confidence was shaken following a deadly collision in 2011, and the state-run Xinhua news agency reported Wednesday that the country's former rail minister, Liu Zhijun, has been charged with bribery and abuse of power in a corruption scandal that led to his ouster two years ago.
Brown has advocated for high-speed rail since he was governor before, from 1975 to 1983, and he celebrated a political victory when the Legislature last year authorized $5.8 billion in state rail bond funds and federal aid to start construction.
Future funding is uncertain, however. Congressional Republicans are stepping up opposition to the project, and rail officials believe they are unlikely to attract substantial private investment until at least part of the system, a 300-mile stretch from Merced to the Los Angeles area, is operational nine years from now.
The administration is taking the long view in its courtship of potential investors. Rail officials believe a foreign company such as Tangshan could open a factory in California to produce trains - a Tangshan representative said the company is interested in such an arrangement - or bid on a larger contract to operate the rail service overall.
"We want to be out there giving them snapshots, giving them ideas about what we're doing," Richard said.
Richard may have more patience than Brown. The 75-year-old governor has boasted before that he could overcome opposition to high-speed rail and an equally controversial water plan, but the clamor of construction here appears to have heightened his resolve.
"It is very inspiring to come back here and see all that building, and all this change and transformation, all this uplifting of human beings," Brown said at a luncheon hosted by the American Chamber of Commerce in Beijing this week. "And it's that advancement and that productivity and that ability to create something almost out of nothing that gives me encouragement that we can still tackle the big issues."
Brown's predecessor, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said when he traveled to China, South Korea and Japan in 2010 that he was going in part to seek investors for California's rail project. Roelof van Ark, the rail authority's chief executive officer at the time, said the project "was still very much a pipe dream" when Schwarzenegger visited.
"It's become much more concrete since then," van Ark said, "and I think that may well attract, or make the Chinese more aggressive in their stance toward the project."
Brown and his wife, first lady Anne Gust Brown, covered more than 800 miles on the train on Thursday, traveling in about five hours a distance equivalent to that between San Diego and the Oregon border.
"I am energized," Brown said of his first two days in China. "I see people do stuff. You know, we sit around and mope and process and navel-gaze, and the rest of the world is moving at Mach speed." Brown said that when he returns to California next week "we'll emulate some of that."
Call David Siders, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1215. Follow him on Twitter @davidsiders.