Safety must come on rail network

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 July, 2011, 12:00am


The first fatal accident on China's high-speed rail system was bound to cause public outcry. Massive expenditure, the breakneck speed of construction, corruption and a political dimension had already made it a controversial project. The collision of two trains on Saturday night in Zhejiang province that left dozens of passengers dead and scores injured has prompted soul-searching as to whether it has all been too much, too fast and with safety taking a back seat to prestige. Given the problems with other infrastructure, they are valid concerns.

Authorities have been prompt to respond. In quick succession, scores of train services have been halted, three top railway officials in Shanghai sacked and nationwide safety checks are under way. It is as should be expected given the ramifications of the accident. There is too much at stake to ignore the criticism.

High-speed rail is a centrepiece of the government's plans to make China a technological powerhouse. By the end of this year, the mainland will have 13,000 kilometres of high-speed track, which amounts to about one-ninth of all railway lines. Under the latest five-year plan, 2.8 trillion yuan (HK$3.36 trillion) has been set aside for construction through 2015. Transport links will be improved and the standard of rail travel raised, but the system also tells the world about the nation's industrial prowess and boosts the overseas profile of its rail construction companies.

Accidents and controversies are not good for that image. The sacking of railways minister Liu Zhijun in February under a cloud of corruption and the subsequent removal of half a dozen other railway officials have raised questions about oversight. The massive debts that have been incurred, doubts about whether costs will be recouped, the affordability of tickets and passenger targets not being met add to the concerns. And then there is safety. Services on the much-vaunted high-speed line from Beijing to Shanghai were disrupted three times in four days shortly after the July 1 opening and now the collision has cast the darkest of shadows over the network.

No transport system is immune from accidents. China has embarked on an ambitious path with high-speed railways and teething problems are inevitable. A tragedy on the scale of that which has taken place does not fall into such a category, though. There has to be a thorough investigation and those at fault have to be held accountable.

China is being driven by a desire to be a world leader in technology. That is a worthy goal, but it cannot be achieved at the expense of safety. There can be no cutting of corners when it comes to infrastructure. No matter how fast trains run, the highest possible safety standards have to be in place and at all times observed.