Subways built at full steam leave trail of accidents

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 August, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 August, 2009, 12:00am

China's rush to build urban subway systems is not only costing hundreds of billions of yuan but lives too.

Metro systems are being constructed or planned in more than 40 cities, with a total of 1,700 kilometres of new urban metro rail expected to be built by 2015 at a cost of 623 billion yuan (HK$707.81 billion).

But the rushed pace of construction is resulting in an alarmingly high accident rate, with deaths, building collapses and economic losses.

A tunnelling accident during the construction of the Shenzhen Metro Line 1 last year resulted in the collapse of a six-storey apartment block.

Hah Foo Kian, mainland operations manager at Australian infrastructure consultancy firm Evans & Peck, knows first hand the risks taken to get the job done. The firm was advising on the Shenzhen project and had warned the contractors to check the foundations of the building.

'They were tunnelling near a building and we asked the contractors whether they knew what sort of foundations the building had,' the executive said. 'We were surprised that they did not know because they had not done a site survey. The contractors did not take our advice, so when they did the tunnelling, the building collapsed.'

In January this year, a fire that broke out during the construction of Shanghai Metro Line 11 killed one person and injured several others. Evans & Peck was advising an insurance company on this project and had visited the site three times before the accident occurred.

'We mentioned in our reports that fire was an extremely likely risk as workers could not escape quickly enough or had the necessary self-rescue apparatus and fire extinguishers,' Mr Hah recalled. 'The conditions got worse on each subsequent visit.'

The lightning pace with which the mainland metro systems are being built has created lots of problems in construction safety, according to insurance giant Swiss Re.

'We have participated in many metro projects in China, and found that while there are many positive experiences, there were also many problems,' said Swiss Re.

On August 2, a subway station collapsed in Shaanxi province, killing two workers, while one worker died following the collapse of a subway tunnel in Shenzhen last month.

In 2008, 21 people died after a metro tunnel collapse in Hangzhou, while a cave-in on Shenzhen's Metro Line 3 resulted in three deaths and two injuries. In the same year, Guangzhou's Metro Line 5 flooded and collapsed.

A collapse on the Shanghai Metro Line 4 in 2003 caused a six-storey office building to collapse, resulting in losses of US$60 million, according to Jacobs Engineering, an international engineering conglomerate.

'In developed countries, metro accidents happen but the factor that makes it worse in China is that they are building too fast,' said Mr Hah.

Under government orders, contractors will try to finish metro rail projects as quickly as possible, so they take more risks, he said.

'Contractors in various Chinese cities have said the schedules given to them are unreasonable,' Mr Hah said. 'Many city governments are not experienced in metro projects, so they set unreasonable schedules.'

Many of these cities are building metro rail systems for the first time, so the project owners lack experience and a system for managing risks.

Another contributing factor to the high accident rate is a serious shortage of experienced personnel, said Swiss Re.

'The rapid expansion of metro construction projects throughout China has resulted in large numbers of inexperienced personnel involved in the projects,' the company said.