Answers missing in report on rail crash

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 December, 2011, 12:00am


The report on the investigation into July's deadly high-speed train crash in Wenzhou, Zhejiang, raised some unnerving questions about the safety of the mainland's high-speed rail network without supplying any answers.

A 'serious' software bug in the main computer of the train control system at a station played a pivotal part in the accident that killed 40 passengers and injured more than 200, the report said.

But who wrote the source code? Which lines are affected? Why has the programmer gone unpunished? Is there a patch? If so, what is it and has it been applied? Professor Wang Mengshu , deputy technical director of the 34-member investigation panel, said yesterday they had not found the problematic lines of source code, and the investigation was continuing.

He also confirmed that the train control system, designed by the Beijing National Railway Research and Design Institute of Signal and Communication, and still in use at Wenzhou South station, had used foreign companies' components and software.

'The problem is very sophisticated and the investigation will continue,' he said.

The report also says emergency services were at the crash scene 12 minutes after it happened, but witnesses said it took a lot longer.

Most experts in the high-speed rail industry agree that the mainland's technology has borrowed heavily from other countries.

But some foreign firms, wary of the mainland's lack of respect for intellectual property rights and fearful of future competition, sold it equipment bundled with software containing 'black boxes' - a few lines of deeply buried source code that could leave mainland researchers in the dark when a problem arose.

The Wenzhou report has revealed the authorities' uncertainty about the source code.

The discovery of the bug was not made by examining the software line by line but through external testing that found the main computer failed to 'process' a malfunction signal with a routine 'fail-safe' procedure.

Ye Feng, a senior engineer at the institute leading the development of the control system, has been demoted and is the only member of the team to have been punished following the crash. But Ye specialises in hardware, not programming. He could not be reached for comment yesterday.

The report's ambiguity about the source code has strengthened speculation that the software was not written on the mainland.

A Hitachi executive told The Wall Street Journal in October the firm had sold the mainland rail signalling equipment with black boxes that made problems difficult to understand during a test.

It was a mystery how a mainland company 'could integrate our equipment into a broader safety-signalling system without intimate knowledge of our know-how', the executive was quoted as saying.