Railway firms charge ahead despite accident

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 31 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 December, 2011, 12:00am


Mainland railway companies are reporting strong business despite a deadly Wenzhou accident in July and the subsequent investigation that produced a harshly critical report, and analysts say more needs to be done to clean up the sector.

'The accident should not have much impact on our overseas business,' said Li Jiansheng, chief financial officer of China Railway, a large state-owned railway construction company. The Shanghai and Hong Kong-listed company announced yesterday that it had gained a US$1.15 billion contract to build 5,000 public housing flats in Angola, plus a US$113 million contract to upgrade a railway network in Venezuela.

State-owned rolling stock manufacturer CSR also said its order book was growing. 'Since the accident, our overseas contracts have reached a peak,' CSR joint company secretary Thomas Wong said. 'Our contracts signed this year are much more than last year's.'

This year, the Hong Kong-listed company tripled its overseas revenue, which now accounts for 10 per cent of total revenue, according to its website. Turnover totalled 63.9 billion yuan (HK$78 billion) last year.

CSR exports trains to 66 countries. On December 22, it signed an agreement with Malaysia's Ministry of Transport for CSR to maintain intercity trains in the country for the next two years for 270 million yuan.

The government's report on the accident in Zhejiang province, which was released on Wednesday, was 'a small positive' for train makers such as CSR because it did not blame them for the crash that killed 40, said a Hong Kong equity analyst who declined to be named. Instead, it blamed serious equipment design flaws, lax supervision by officials and inadequate emergency response.

The Ministry of Supervision said on its website that the judiciary was studying whether any of the 54 people being punished were guilty of criminal offences.

'With such a large number of people [punished], you want to overhaul the system. It points to some systemic failing which might require a review of the corporate governance of the Railways Ministry,' said Richard di Bona, who runs a transport consultancy in Hong Kong.

Among the 54, former railways minister Liu Zhijun and former railways vice-chief engineer Zhang Shuguang bore major responsibility, but would be treated separately because both were suspected of serious economic crimes, the Supervision Ministry said. Railways vice-minister Lu Dongfu and chief engineer He Huawu had their offences put on record. Many other officials also had their offences recorded or were demoted.

'The penalties are too light, given the many deaths,' said Zheng Tianxiang, transport professor at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou. 'Some officials should have been sacked but were allowed to stay in the ministry.'

James Wang Jixian, head of geography at the University of Hong Kong, said: 'From beginning to end, the report made no mention of the law. If a similar accident happened in Europe, the report would clearly state which problem violated what law. People must know their legal responsibility and penalty.'

China's safety regulations might be inadequate, Wang said. 'That is the real danger in future, if something like that happens again.'

Although the report partly blamed China Railway Signal and Communication, a state-owned company that supplied the faulty signalling system, it did not recommend getting more suppliers to compete for the job, he noted. 'The report should have realised it was a monopoly issue but didn't.' He said the report failed to do enough to encourage reform of the Railways Ministry.

But Zheng said the fact that Railways Minister Sheng Guangzu had to make a 'self criticism' to the State Council suggested the central government was serious about reform.