Crash probe may hurt overseas sale

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 December, 2011, 12:00am


Beijing's handling of the probe into the high-speed train crash of July 23 will hurt China's attempts to sell trains abroad, especially in developed markets, say experts.

'The government's handling of the probe into the July 23 accident is not good enough. This will have a large negative impact on the Chinese public's trust in high-speed trains and especially international confidence. If the probe is not well conducted, other countries will be distrustful of the quality of Chinese high-speed trains,' said Zheng Tianxiang, a transport professor at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou.

He said it was inappropriate for train services to resume so soon after the accident while the probe was yet to be completed.

On July 23, two high-speed trains collided a few kilometres from Wenzhou city, Zhejiang province, killing 40, after lightning struck one of the trains. Initially, Chinese officials said a report explaining the accident would be publicised in September. On September 21, the State Administration of Work Safety said the report would be made public at a later, unspecified date. There's no sign of the report yet.

'The Chinese government might have made a mistake in announcing an early deadline for the report, because they don't have much experience with public relations,' said Richard di Bona, who runs a transport consultancy in Hong Kong. 'It's better to have a thorough investigation, even if it takes longer.'

In developed countries like Britain, a similar probe may take years to complete, but there will be a public inquiry open to the press, said di Bona. 'There may be less transparency in China, where it's a private inquiry and they publish the findings rather than let the whole proceedings be made public.'

In mid-November, Wang Mengshu, deputy technical director of the accident probe panel, said the report had been submitted to the State Council, and Beijing was 'apportioning blame' for the disaster.

In late November, Wang was quoted in Chinese newspapers as blaming the accident on poor management.

On November 20, in reply to a Chinese reporter's question on why the report was being held back, Wang said it would be made public later.

On November 21, the State Administration of Work Safety quoted Wang as saying he felt 'uneasy' over Chinese media reports quoting him, saying the reports were inaccurate and did not reflect his views. He also said that what he told the reporter was his personal opinion, which did not have official authorisation and did not reflect the views of the probe panel. 'This type of doublespeak in China is often referred to as calling a deer a horse. Of course it was bad management,' said a US rail accident investigator who declined to be named.

The accident is due to a combination of nature (in the form of lightning striking the train), technical defects and management problems, said James Wang Jixian, head of the geography department at the University of Hong Kong.

The authorities may possibly produce a whitewashed public report on the accident, where details of the probe may not be totally disclosed, said a Hong Kong transport professor who declined to be named.

'The government wants a harmonious society, so they want to make the accident fade from public memory. One of their objectives is that the public findings on the accident do not hurt international sales of Chinese high-speed trains.'

However, di Bona said the probe findings were 'likely to have an impact on international sales of Chinese trains, but it depends on which countries'.