Public taken for dangerous ride on escalator safety

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 July, 2011, 12:00am


The elderly, parents with baby carriages and commuters with luggage have been given little choice but to walk up and down steep, non-moving escalators at crowded Shenzhen subway stations since 340 Otis escalators at its 118 Metro stations were taken out of operation last Saturday.

With nearly 40 per cent of escalators out of action, rush-hour queues for even the ones that are not moving extend all the way to the automatic ticket gates.

The chaos follows a nationwide shutdown of all Otis 513 MPE model escalators, ordered by the national quality watchdog after a 13-year-old boy was killed and 30 other people were injured at a Beijing subway station on July 5 when an ascending escalator suddenly reversed direction and started shaking, sending people toppling.

Twenty-five people were injured when an escalator of the same model suddenly reversed in Shenzhen in December. But city authorities did not issue a safety alarm or suspend use of the model after that accident. On the contrary, they bought more for use on the five new Metro lines and extensions now launched ahead of next month's world university games.

Official numbers show that nearly two out of every five escalators in Shenzhen's Metro stations are the 513 MPE model, with most in the busiest stations. Short-sighted regulators and government contractors had combined to put the lives of 1.8 million Shenzhen commuters at risk.

While the government is blaming Otis for faults in the design of the escalator, loopholes in the mainland's escalator standards have also contributed to the accidents. A commentary in the Southern Daily said there were different standards for heavy-duty escalators for subways in different cities.

Even though the subway operators said they were using heavy-duty models, the specifications of the 513 MPE model show that it can only handle being fully loaded for 30 minutes in any three hours. Experts say escalators should be able to handle at least double that workload to meet the continuous and massive flow of passenger traffic in subway stations.

More problems with Shenzhen's Metro escalators were exposed when at least two people were injured at the Baoan district's Qinghu station on Line 4 on Sunday. Witnesses claimed that an ascending CNIM escalator - a French brand made on the mainland - reversed direction and shook. But the subsidiary of Hong Kong's MTR Corp that operates the Shenzhen Metro insisted the escalator met the authorities' safety requirements, and another 70 along the line remain in service.

Coincidentally, an MTR Corp subsidiary also holds a 49 per cent interest in Beijing's No 4 subway line, where the boy died on July 5, with Beijing Capital Group also holding 49 per cent.

If similar accidents happened in Hong Kong, the MTR would surely be widely condemned by lawmakers, the media and numerous rights groups. But legislators on the mainland are appointed by the Communist Party, the media is state-controlled and the public aren't allowed to set up rights groups to challenge the authorities.

Last month, Shenzhen deputy mayor Zhang Siping was quoted by newspapers as saying the city would build another 350 kilometres of Metro line in the next five years, surpassing the networks in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou with a total of 226 Metro stations and 530 kilometres of track by 2016.

The escalator accidents highlight the potential safety risks when government regards infrastructure as a way to boost economic growth and political careers and the public is banned from questioning government decisions.