Braking point?

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 July, 2011, 12:00am


The Wenzhou bullet train disaster has called into question the pace of expansion of the high-speed-rail network and put the breakneck race for development on trial in the court of public opinion.

The crash, which killed at least 39 people, has caused nationwide soul-searching about the hasty expansion over the past decade.

'The leap-forward growth of the rail sector apparently goes against natural laws to some extent,' says Xu Yifa, a former train driver who became director of Zhengzhou's railway bureau. 'We must value quality and safety over speed.'

The cause of the crash - when a Beijing to Fuzhou bullet train rammed into a slow-moving or stationary Hangzhou to Fuzhou train - hasn't been determined.

But many analysts are blaming the railway ministry and its disgraced former minister, Liu Zhijun.

The public and media have launched unprecedented attacks on the railway system, one of the most monopolised sectors in the mainland's economy.

In addition to those killed, nearly 200 people were injured in the collision last Saturday, in which four carriages were forced off a viaduct and two more were derailed.

The number of missing remains unknown. Authorities have so far refused to make public the figure, fuelling rumours of an official cover-up of the death toll.

Beijing sacked three senior officials at the Shanghai railway bureau and launched an urgent overhaul of national rail safety.

Yet calls are mounting on the internet for the resignation of Liu's successor, Sheng Guangzu,and even vice-premier Zhang Dejiang , who is in charge of workplace safety.

Citizens and media are questioning the ministry's initial assertion that the collision was due to a failure in signalling equipment caused by lightning and not human error.

They have also criticised the ministry's handling of the fatal accident - the sloppy rescue effort, the disposal of wreckage and the controversial decision to reopen the track less than 36 hours later, leaving a string of key questions remained unanswered.

Professor Zhao Jian, of Beijing Jiaotong University, said the collision was largely a consequence of irrational expansion in the railway sector under Liu Zhijun, an advocate of high-speed rail who was sacked in February. He was investigated for 'severe violation of discipline' amid corruption allegations.

Zhao, a critic of bullet trains, commented: 'The fatal accident laid bare the vulnerability and limits of advanced technology, especially those imported from other countries.'

China has built the world's largest high-speed-rail network, reaching 8,358 kilometres at the end of last year. It is expected to exceed 13,000 kilometres by the end of next year and 16,000 kilometres by 2020.

Beijing plans to spend 2.8 trillion yuan (HK$3.4 trillion) on railway construction between now and 2015.

Zhao said many high-speed projects were completed in a rush, with their construction periods shortened to markedly below the normal time. These include the flagship Beijing-Shanghai rail line.

Authorities often portray the rapid construction as cost-effective and claim it as a political triumph, but analysts warn of safety risks and compromised quality.

The 1,318-kilometre line between Beijing and Shanghai is the longest and most expensive single high-speed line in the world.

It was completed in just 39 months and opened on June 30, well ahead of its original launch date next year.

The hasty scheduling was aimed at showing off national pride and prowess to mark the Communist Party's 90th anniversary.

But the opening was marred by a string of delays and other disruptions caused by lightning strikes and extreme weather.

The rail sector is apparently not alone in paying a price for the country's craze for speed.

In quake-ravaged Sichuan , the government cut the reconstruction period from three years to two in a move described by state media as helping quake victims rebuild their homes and start their new lives more quickly.

But the move seems to have left them more vulnerable to shoddy buildings and official corruption, sparking disputes and protests.

Meanwhile, local authorities in Henan have accelerated resettlement for the massive South-North Water Diversion Project this year.

Nearly 200,000 people are to be displaced in the next two years, instead of three years as planned, to enable the swift completion of the project designed to alleviate water shortages.

Analysts have criticised the hasty decision, which ignores the project's environmental and social impact and lacks the necessary understanding and support from those affected.

The desire for speed has even extended to the training period for bullet train drivers. A report in People's Daily in December said the first batch of drivers, who usually do not receive tertiary education, were given only about 10 days to learn how to drive bullet trains.

It usually takes counterparts in western countries six months to two years to become qualified for the job.

Xu, the former railway official, said it was hard to understand how the accident actually happened as the high-speed-rail system was equipped to cope with lightning.

Also, the train was equipped with a black box recorder which was supposed to stop it automatically in case of emergency.

Xu said China's appalling air pollution might also be a safety hazard to high-speed rail, something rarely mentioned by mainland experts in discussing the accident.

'I used to cope with safety mishaps on another rail line, on which dust particles conducted electricity and partly paralysed the power supply of the rail system,' he said.

'We must take into account all possible factors that could pose safety risks, especially considering the country's unique situation.'

Professor Zhao said the government should learn lessons from the Wenzhou disaster and rethink the development of high-speed rail.

It should halt projects under construction and fix safety shortcomings in those already operating, including the rail link between Ningbo and Wenzhou on which the crash occurred, he said.

'We must find real causes. Otherwise there will be even more serious problems in the future,' he said.

'It's true the railway sector needs expansion, but we don't need bullet trains just for the sake of high speed.

'Instead, we need to build more normal speed rail links which place priority on safety and cost-benefit.'

Dai Xingyi, a professor of environmental economics at Fudan University in Shanghai, said the accident was a grim reminder of the huge human and environmental toll exacted by the mainland authorities' blind faith in the pace of growth.

'That's the price for irrational leaps forward [in the rail sector],' Dai said.

He said Saturday's crash was an unintended consequence of the controversial 4 trillion yuan economic stimulus package in 2008, which financed huge infrastructure projects.

High-speed rail was one of the biggest beneficiaries. Expansion that would usually take a decade or more took place rapidly in little over three years.

'The government should make a public apology for the stimulus package,' Dai said, while noting that the absence of self-correcting mechanisms was one of the inherent flaws of a communist system.

'We need to raise the question of who is benefiting from such high growth featuring costly and energy-intensive infrastructure and industrial sectors?

'The people's livelihoods have been adversely affected by the growth, which is supposed to serve the public interest,' Dai said.

Despite the rage and anguish caused by the crash, Dai said the railway authorities might end up gaining more than they lose.

'Given the strategic importance of sectors such as the railway system, a prevailing logic in the mainland bureaucracy is that accidents and disasters can be turned to their favour as reasons to garner high-level support from the leadership and to demand more resources to fix safety loopholes,' he said.

'It could become a vicious circle if the government cannot break up the railway monopoly.'

To Professor Zhu Lijia, of the Chinese Academy of Governance, the collision underscores lessons from more than 30 years of swift development.

'The accident is highly symbolic, signalling an overall moral decline in society with blind faith in the high growth rate as a recipe for all sorts of social woes,' Zhu said.

'The development has been dominated by a minority of the people and powerful interest groups.

'Government bodies have become increasingly detached and indifferent to the public interest.

'People can give up principles and responsibility in favour of material wealth and personal interest, and it will have a lasting impact on the nation that cannot be underestimated.'

As a result, the country has been hit by a series of disasters in recent years, from food safety scandals and heavy-metal pollution to the collapse of shoddily built bridges and buildings and mining accidents, Zhu said.

'It is time for the leadership to shift its focus from economic growth to social management due to spiralling social woes, injustice and the ever widening wealth gap,' he said.

Zhu said soul-searching was needed to address rampant social injustice, distribute wealth evenly, restore trust and build a civil society in which everyone enjoys freedom and dignity.

As a start, it was imperative to reform the railway ministry to restrict its administrative power and separate its profit-driven business activities.

He said: 'It is unavoidable to see bloody accidents of similar scale or even worse if the ministry's monopoly can't be broken up.'


The top speed, in kilometres per hour, at which the mainland's high-speed trains are allowed to travel. The limit was cut from 350 km/h