Monster traffic jams run rings around officials

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 September, 2010, 12:00am

Over the past few weeks, so much has been written in the mainland and overseas media about the great traffic jam on the expressway from Inner Mongolia to Beijing. It certainly has the makings of a great story. From the middle of last month, mainland media started to report on the traffic jam, stretching up to 120 kilometres with thousands of coal-carrying trucks clogging roads from Inner Mongolia to the border of Beijing for nearly 10 days.

Just days after it began to ease on August 23, another 100-kilometre jam began to build up on the same roads. Xinhua reported yesterday that the latest gridlock started to clear on Saturday. The surreal images of thousands of stranded trucks and truck drivers playing cards on gridlocked roads in the middle of nowhere made headlines around the world and caused an acute embarrassment for the authorities, who have spent trillions of yuan on roads and bridges.

The media and observers have tried to explore the reasons behind the great jams, pointing to the soaring vehicle ownership, fragile infrastructure, over-reliance on coal for power generation and transporting that coal on the road.

Officials have wrung their hands on the issue, saying there are just too many trucks and suggesting that jams are likely to occur more often in the next three or five years as new roads and railways are built. But the truth is that the jams are caused by the officials themselves - they have been running the road networks for parochial interests and making money by installing too many toll booths and weigh stations on the expressways.

The mainland may have spent trillions of yuan to set up the world's second-longest expressway system, after that of the United States. But its management is very chaotic, to say the least. Each province has been responsible to build its own network of expressways using bank loans and their own revenues. While the central government stipulates there may be a toll booth every 40 kilometres, some local authorities have set up toll booths every 20 kilometres or even shorter. Most local authorities have used them as cash cows for local revenues and continue to collect fees even after the investment on the roads is recouped. This is in sharp contrast to other countries, where the expressways are funded by state spending and are free.

So motorists are likely to encounter traffic jams when they approach the toll booths. An even more ridiculous development is that as the tolls are counted as local revenue, the local government would always set up booths on their own borders. This means that a motorist would have to pay fees at the booth on the border of Inner Mongolia and then drive 100 or 200 metres and stop at a toll booth run by the Hebei government.

For the haulers of heavy-duty goods like coal, they would also have to stop at a number of the so-called weigh stations on the roads run by various local authorities from the provincial government to the city. The stations are originally designed to detect and prevent drivers from overloading the trucks, which can cause serious damage to the roads.

But the primary function of those weigh stations is to make money as they simply stop the trucks and fine the drivers - since most of the trucks are usually overloaded - before allowing them back on the road, until the next weigh station.

Now imagine that over half of the mainland's coal-carrying trucks are plying the Beijing-Tibet Expressway from Inner Mongolia to the coastal region via Beijing, and you will get the picture.

China is to coal what Saudi Arabia is to oil, as its soaring economy is mainly powered by coal. But it is cursed by the fact that the coal and gas reserves are mostly in the western region and the demand for coal used in power generation is mostly thousands of kilometres to the east. As northwestern Inner Mongolia has now overtaken Shanxi as the mainland's No1 coal producer, it is estimated that as many as half the coal-carrying trucks on the mainland are now plying the roads from Inner Mongolia to the coast. According to official data, more than 60 per cent of Inner Mongolia's coal is carried by trucks because the weak railroad network can handle only 40 per cent.

According to the Inner Mongolian police, the four-lane expressway from Inner Mongolia to Hebei is designed to handle a maximum of 20,000 vehicles a day in both directions, but the actual traffic has reached about 70,000. The situation is the same with the traffic going from Hebei to Beijing. To make matters worse, Beijing traffic police have imposed restrictions on the roads under its jurisdiction, banning heavy goods vehicles from using them during the day and forcing the police in Inner Mongolia and Hebei to block the coal trucks from getting on the Beijing-bound expressways. This has also helped create long tailbacks in Inner Mongolia and Hebei. In fact, the two traffic jams extensively reported on are not alone. Back in June, thousands of trucks were stranded on the road for more than 20 days, but this was not reported until recently. In fact, many truck drivers have told the media that traffic jams have become a daily occurrence since the beginning of this year.

Thanks to the extensive reports on the jams, embarrassed officials have been spurred to action. They have set up an emergency headquarters bringing together traffic police from Inner Mongolia, Hebei and Beijing to improve co-ordination to ease the gridlocks. They also promised to build more roads and railways in the next few years to increase freight capacity.

But so far there have been no discussions about reducing the number of toll booths and weigh stations. So, the great traffic jams will surely return in the near future.