All too common disasters are a sad reality of life

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 October, 2011, 12:00am


Another day, another disaster - it often seems that way on the mainland.

Floods, chemical spills, major fires and mine collapses occur with such regularity, it is hard not to become numb to the news.

Little wonder, then, that Tuesday's crash on the Shanghai subway has been met with plenty of anger but depressingly little surprise. It is just 10 weeks today since the fatal high-speed train crash in Wenzhou, and the images of that disaster - in which at least 40 lives were cut short - remain fresh in people's minds.

Thankfully, there were no deaths in this week's collision. However, with 284 injuries - a third of them serious enough to warrant admission to hospital - out of 500-odd passengers, this was no minor mishap. A 15-member investigation team has been charged with uncovering how one train ran into the back of a stationary train on a track that is supposed to have fail-safe systems to prevent just that. But it is anyone's guess when they will finally make their findings public.

In any case, the official facts are largely irrelevant, from the perspective of the average Shanghai resident. The court of public opinion convened in quick session as soon as news of the collision spread and swiftly reached a damning verdict. And the accusing finger was pointing unwaveringly in the government's direction.

On the street above Laoximen station, where the accident occurred, the taste of rage hung thick in the air as throngs of onlookers gazed at the rescue operation. With no information whatsoever, aside from the emergency services' massive response, those milling around convinced one other that the deaths would number in three figures, but would never be made public. Such is the level of public distrust in the government that official accounts were being rejected as fabrications even before they had been issued. Attempts in state media to shunt the blame onto the Sino-French joint venture that produced the signalling equipment and rolling stock on the line - touted on Casco Signal's website as being 'the first driverless and high-density line in China' - fell flat.

There was a signalling failure on the line around 40 minutes ahead of the crash, which resulted in extensive delays as operators switched to conducting the trains manually. It turns out, though, that this was due to a power cut of some kind, not because the actual signalling equipment had malfunctioned.

There was also a strange case of obfuscation, as it was widely reported that Casco had provided faulty signalling equipment that contributed to the July 23 high-speed-train crash. That proved to be totally incorrect, although, bizarrely, one of the company's own managers seemed to have failed to point that out in an interview with the Shanghai Daily earlier this week.

The similarities between the two accidents are, however, hard to ignore. Both involved the rear-ending of stationary or slow-moving trains, requiring a total failure of supposedly infallible automated protection systems. Both occurred while operations on a line had been extensively disrupted by signalling failures and, in the Wenzhou case, extreme weather as well. Both involved management staff, according to accounts, failing to follow correct procedures as they struggled to maintain order on a complex system in the aftermath of that disruption.

Both - this hardly needs be said - should never have happened, and could most likely have been prevented with a proper safety management system. And finally, both happened on transport networks that have been expanding at an eye-watering pace in recent years, placing an incredible strain on the supply of both physical components and human resources.

The Shanghai Metro now totals over 430 kilometres of track on 11 lines - twice the length that was operational just three years ago. Much of that was hurriedly built in the run-up to the 2010 World Expo. At a time when neighbouring cities are also building subway systems, there is now a dearth of experienced staff. Even government officials have been privately voicing their reservations about the expansion pace and the safety implications.

That was true even before the last collision on the city's subway system in December 2009. Although there were no injuries in that incident, the length of time rescuers took to evacuate stranded passengers raised serious concerns about their levels of preparedness.

Before Tuesday afternoon, this column was going to be about the daily carnage on the congested roads of the Yangtze Delta. Two weeks ago, a speeding bus flipped over on an expressway in Pudong, killing 11 people and injuring 13.

But in a nation with an average of a vehicle-related fatality every five minutes, that tragedy gained little attention.

The point is that everyone knows the roads are deadly. Rail tracks were supposed to provide sanctuary.