China's rail exports 'hinge on probe'
An open, thorough and independent investigation of China's fatal high-speed train accident, able to withstand close international scrutiny, is the only way to restore confidence in the country's rail system following the July 23 accident, analysts say.
The Chinese government is lobbying potential buyers of its high-speed rail systems in the United States, Britain, Brazil, Thailand, and South Africa. The global rail industry is worth about US$208 billion annually, according to Lloyd's Register, a British organisation that provides certification services in the energy and transport sectors.
'International experts and the countries to which China wants to export trains are going to ply China with tough questions. It should be able to stand up to this challenge, otherwise it has no chance [of exporting its rail products],' Kao Tsung-chung, an adviser to California's high-speed rail project, said.
China needs to adopt Germany's strategy after its train accident in Eschede in 1998, urged Kao, who is also a railroad professor at the University of Illinois in Urbana Champaign. The Eschede accident, which killed 101 people, was the world's only fatal high-speed train accident until 40 people were killed when two high-speed trains collided a few kilometres from Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, on July 23.
'What Germany did was establish a very thorough and open investigation,' Kao said. 'What they reported was convincing to the industry and academics. As a result, they believed the root causes were removed.'
People who believed the results of the German investigation included Chinese scientists and China's Ministry of Railways, given that the Beijing-Tianjin high-speed railway used the German Velaro train, Kao said. As a result, Germany's high-speed railway industry has recovered from the accident and its rail systems are now widely exported.
'China needs the same approach now - an open and thorough investigation with convincing results that can be presented to academics and experts in the international high-speed rail industry,' said Kao.
David Shipley, managing director of CSRE, a British company that markets Chinese-made trains in Europe, endorsed this view, urging Chinese authorities to adopt better post-accident processes, so that a fair, open and independent investigation could take place. 'This can identify the cause of the failure and establish what can be learned, so that a similar accident cannot happen in future,' Shipley said. 'This is the only credible way of improving safety standards.'
CSRE is negotiating to sell trains valued at more than ?500 million (HK$6.2 billion) to four British rail projects. The trains are made by CSR Corporation, a Chinese state-owned rolling stock maker listed in Hong Kong and Shanghai that also made the two trains that collided in July.
Shipley said he had received 'a small amount of negative feedback' on Chinese trains after the July accident, mainly related to the Chinese authorities' handling of the aftermath of the collision.
In the past few months, before the accident, CSRE switched its business model to having the final assembly and safety certification of Chinese trains done in Britain, which would reassure European customers' concerns over the quality and safety of Chinese trains, Shipley said.
Having proper standards and ensuring rail products met them was key to ensuring safety, Iain Carmichael, a managing director of Lloyd's Register, said. 'Meeting specifications is a driver for any manufacturer who wants to have a major role in the international rail industry.'
Since 2008, Lloyd's Register has been certifying Chinese trains to ensure they meet the specifications of China and other nations. Lloyd's Register is working with China CNR Corporation, a Shanghai-listed state-owned rolling stock manufacturer to secure contracts to export its trains to Europe, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America.
'Meeting specifications is the best way of demonstrating the performance of your products. If you do that, you can give your client confidence. The quality of the train is governed by compliance with specifications,' Carmichael said. To ensure safety, robust specifications must be created, manufacturers must meet them and a third party like Lloyd's Register must certify the manufacturers as meeting those specifications, he added.
Initial studies by Chinese authorities have laid the blame for the accident on design flaws in rail signalling systems, which are 'irrelevant' to CSR's rolling stock products, according to CSR spokeswoman Li Min.
Although the company was not blamed, 'CSR, with a responsible attitude, has decided to enhance quality control to ensure safety,' Li said. 'It has carried out a comprehensive inspection on safety and quality in all aspects such as design, manufacturing, testing, and service to guarantee zero defects and hazards.'
The accident would not affect CSR's exports, she said.
In August, CSR won a Euro280 million (HK$3 billion) order to supply metro trains to the Middle East, its biggest order for this type of train, as well as a 580 million yuan (HK$703.7 million) order for engines to Turkmenistan.
However, CNR trains exported to Australia's Waratah railway project needed significant reworking of the train interiors, according to the interim report of Downer EDI, an Australian infrastructure and engineering services firm involved in the project.