A year after Wenzhou, top speeds go back up

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 July, 2012, 12:00am

Top speeds on the mainland's high-speed rail network, cut in the wake of a fatal crash a year ago, are set to be increased by 20km/h - a move that has divided academics.

The crash on July 23 in Wenzhou, Zhejiang, which killed 40 people and injured 172 others, forced the government to lower the top speed of high-speed trains from 350km/h to 300km/h.

Professor Wang Mengshu, a key drafter of the blueprint for developing high-speed railways, said the Ministry of Railways had told its subsidiaries to prepare for increased speed limits.

'High speed lines operating at 300km/h at the moment will speed up to 320km/h, and the same increase will be applied on lines operating at 200km/h,' said Wang, who works at Beijing Jiaotong University.

The move could reduce travelling times between Beijing and Shanghai by about half an hour. Trial runs have already started on some lines.

Wang said the proposal was being evaluated by experts and that if the results of test runs were satisfactory, the new speed limit would be implemented across the mainland.

He said one reason for the move was that the Wenzhou accident last year had nothing to do with the speed at which trains travel. However, a more important reason, he said, was that a relatively small increase would once again make the mainland's high-speed trains the world's fastest.

'We don't want to go back to 350km/h for now,' Wang said. 'Running at that high a speed would put a huge stress on our rail lines and trains, accelerating their ageing and raising the cost of maintenance. But 320km/h, according to our calculations, is affordable and economical. It will also restore our position as No1.'

Critics say the mainland has not learned the lessons of the crash.

Professor Zhao Jian , an economist also at Beijing Jiaotong University, said that though the Wenzhou accident was caused by a series of weather, technical and human mishaps, it had revealed the root cause of all the problems in the mainland's high-speed programme was speed itself.

'The biggest problem of China's high-speed rail programme is the irrational pursuit of high speed,' he said.

From the construction of rail lines to the manufacturing of bullet trains, the integration of control software bought from different countries, the evaluation of the safety of signalling equipment, the setting of operating speeds and the training of drivers and traffic controllers, the authorities had been rushing to accomplish in just a few years what developed countries such as Japan and Germany had taken decades to achieve, Zhao said.

'China doesn't need trains running at 350km/h or higher. For passenger service, 200km/h is enough because anything more than that is a waste of energy and too much of a luxury to the low-income population who are in the most desperate need of the service,' he said.

Zhao said some government officials had realised the problem after the accident and had admitted privately that they had made a mistake. The 350km/h standard is longer being stipulated in the construction of some new lines but officials have never admitted that in public.

'It's all about face,' he said.

What happened on the night of the Wenzhou crash remains a mystery, even though, more than five months after the crash, the State Council released a 78-page report by independent investigators.

It said heavy lightning struck the line between the Yongjia and Wenzhou stations, melting a fuse in the Wenzhou station's traffic control system. That meant a computer could no longer judge correctly whether there was a train on the line or not, and it reported there was not, with a green signal showing on traffic controllers' monitors.

However, the computer of a train running on the line detected something had gone wrong, automatically forcing the train to a stop. Its driver radioed the traffic control centre but his wireless communication equipment had also been crippled by the lightning strikes. For nearly eight minutes, he lost contact with the control centre and could not start the train.

Seeing that everything was fine on their monitors, train controllers let another train set off. They only re-established communication with the first train half a minute before the crash and realised that something had gone seriously wrong. But when they tried to warn the driver of the second train, the radio communication was interrupted in the middle of the transmission and never re-established. The second train ran into the rear of the first at a speed of about 83km/h.

The investigation report did not explain why the traffic control system had detected the melting of a fuse but continued beaming 'green' signals, saying only that some important documents related to the design of the equipment had been lost. That prompted speculation that the mainland's designers had not fully understood the various software programs they had bought from different overseas vendors and combined hastily to meet government deadlines.

Experts say the crash could have been avoided.

Wang said many train controllers were fresh graduates from university with little experience of working on railways and relied too much on computers and instrument readings when making decisions. Even though the controllers in Wenzhou had received reports of abnormalities from maintenance workers on the line after the lightning strikes, they still believed what they saw on their computer screens. If they had radioed the second train soon after losing contact with the first, the crash could have been avoided, he said.

Yang Wanzhi , a spokesman for the China Railway Signal & Communication Corporation, which designed and produced the defective traffic control equipment, said it had taken steps to improve safety after the crash but the work had not yet been finished. The key was to ensure that no signalling products would send a 'green' signal when they experienced malfunctions.

Wang said the ministry had set up courses at more than 30 universities to train drivers and traffic controllers. After the accident, stricter quality standards were also imposed on suppliers of high-speed-railway equipment to ensure that only the highest quality equipment would be used on the lines and trains.

The railway industry is keen to rebuild its image.

During negotiations with the Thai government early this year, a representative of the Chinese railway industry encountered Japanese counterparts trying to sell Japanese technology to the Thais, Wang said.

'When the Japanese told the Thais that Chinese trains were not safe because we had the accident last year, we felt angry but had few words to fight back with,' he said. 'Our investigative report had emphasised equipment failure too much, because it was a rare and remediable issue.'

The central government's ambitious blueprint for the development of the high-speed rail networks remains unchallenged. Even though exports of high-speed-rail technology have suffered since the accident, the construction of high-speed rail lines continues apace.

The ministry will spend more than 500 billion yuan this year to complete more than 6,000 kilometres of rail line - more than half of it high-speed. The the Ministry of Science and Technology has also begun work on designing trains with a top speed of 500km/h.


The speed, in kilometres per hour, trains now being designed by the Ministry of Science and Technology are intended to reach


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