Train drivers in low-paid race with time
Being a train driver used to be a prestigious technical career on the mainland. Working for a large, state department meant a stable, well-paid job with the added perk of travelling around the country when few even had the chance to visit a neighbouring city.
That's no longer the case for Max Zhou and his disillusioned former engine driver colleagues, who say the job today brings mostly exhaustion, frustration, and pressure. Now their main concerns are to arrive at the next station on time, have enough rest and time off with their families, and to get a fair wage.
Unlike many of his former colleagues whose relatives worked on the railways, Zhou fell in love with the locomotives as a boy in Hunan province.
After graduating with an economics degree from a local university, Zhou's family asked their 'connections' - which means bribing industry insiders - to help him find a job as a trainee train driver.
He worked at the job for more than three years until he quit in 2009.
As Zhou soon learned, the job's prestige had not only declined and the hours lengthened, the drivers had become much reliant on technology.
'The job might be dangerous but we don't think about that too much. Generally we trust the technology,' Zhou said.
'But it's definitely boring and, to me at least, it has no future.'
Modern locomotives have diesel or electric engines, with today's high-speed versions capable of speeds of up to 350km/h. The new systems, signalling and dispatching systems play critical roles in the networks. So much so that there can be little for a driver to do on the long trips. Zhou shot a short video a few years ago showing a typical day at work. In the two-minute video, his co-driver is seen sitting in the train cab, drinking hot tea, toying with his tousled hair, and not touching a button on the control console. The signalling system tells them when to move forward, slow down or stop. Other instruments show them where they have to adjust speed for inclines.
'Unless there's an emergency that requires the driver to take immediate action, such as people or animals crossing the rail line, drivers just follow the signal system all the time,' he said.
But Zhou and other drivers regard the habitual reliance on the signalling system as one reason that let to the mainland's worst train crash in years.
On a rainswept night on July 23, the southbound D301 collided with the rear of the D3115 Hangzhou-to-Fuzhou train on the outskirts of Wenzhou , Zhejiang province, killing at least 40 passengers and injuring nearly 200.
The Ministry of Railways and mainland media attributed the crash to the failure of the signalling equipment, which was supposed to give the D301 a red light while the D3115 was making an emergency stop.
The public and media have questioned why the driver of D3115 failed to report his stoppage to dispatchers or the driver of D301.
Zhou says it's a reasonable question, but an action most drivers would consider unnecessary.
'If I were the driver of D3115, I wouldn't make that call because either the dispatchers or the signalling system would tell the trains following me to stop, so why would I bother reporting my status?' he says.
'As it turned, it was out an unpredictable error of a system we trusted totally that caused such a tragedy.'
China has one of the world's largest and most complex railway systems. Its 91,000-kilometre network trails only the United States and Russia for scale and the high-speed-rail network of more than 8,000 kilometres was the world's most extensive at the end of last year.
The sector operates 19,400 train engines and the number of passengers has increased by nearly 60 per cent in a decade to more than 1.67 billion last year.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Railways has trimmed its huge workforce over the past decade from 3.2 million to 2.15 million last year, which train drivers say has only added to their stress with longer hours and stagnant, low wages.
In contrast with the rapid expansion of the industry they work for, the drivers complain their status is far lower than before.
One of Zhou's former colleagues, a train driver with the Guangzhou Railway Group who was born into a railway family, says a driver could support his whole family in the 1980s and 1990s. But now, a driver like him with 10 years' experience earns up to only 5,000 yuan (HK$6,060) a month.
Drivers only get to stay at home for less than a day between journeys of more than 30 hours. There are no weekends or holidays, just annual leave of 10 days.
'Our heavy responsibilities are similar to those of airline pilots, but there's a huge gap in our social status and income,' a driver in his 30s complained.
'You know how much a train driver with more than 30 years' experience can earn by the time he retires? Just 80,000 yuan a year.'
The frustrations have spilled over into industrial action. In a rare demonstration, about 200 drivers with the Guangzhou Railway Group protested for two days last week inside the main railway station of Changsha , the capital of Hunan province, over working conditions and poor pay. Claiming that they were owed eight years' of unpaid overtime, the drivers refused to return to work until the company promised to look into their demands.
Xu Yifa , a former train driver who became director of Zhengzhou's railway bureau before he retired two years ago, admits that the mainland railway sector's has lost much of its shine, and there had been many complaints in the industry.
But, he said, many train drivers once saw career opportunities in the sector's new age, especially with the development of bullet trains.
But Zhou's companion, the driver from the railway family, says only those with good connections to top rail executives are offered training courses to drive bullet trains, and must bribe officials for promotions, something he has no intention of doing.
'My family has been with the railways for decades and I do love it,' he says. 'But I don't want to be a driver anymore. It's really hard work with too much pressure.'
The proportion of its workforce that the Ministry of Railways has shed over the last decade