Safety off the rails

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 January, 2012, 12:00am


Three months overdue, the commission investigating the Wenzhou high-speed train crash finally released its findings. Although delayed, the report has delivered a measure of justice - yet it still leaves key questions unanswered.

The report blames the accident on a design flaw in the control equipment, and a failure of the signalling system. If the system malfunctioned, the design company must be held accountable. But a more important question is: in the face of multiple malfunctions, why was the system approved for use in the first place? The report concludes that the Ministry of Railways has failed on three counts: the bidding process, technical scrutiny and track-readiness.

The signalling system is the nerve centre of a rail network. According to international practice, there should be a worldwide bidding process for a signalling system. That's what happened on Hong Kong's West Rail Line when I was chairman of the Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation (KCRC). Eventually, the Canadian system was declared the winner after an open international bidding process.

By contrast, the contract for the Wenzhou line signalling was awarded to a company previously under the railways ministry and now under direct control of the State Council. This raises the obvious question of whether the process was ever opened to international bidding and, if not, what steps were taken to ensure that the quality of the product complied with international standards. Even if such steps were taken, the relationship between the contractor and the rail authority is, to most people, too close for comfort.

As for technical scrutiny, international practice demands third-party certification to ensure safety standards are met and to prevent corruption. According to mainland media reports, Railways Minister Sheng Guangzu recently stressed that equipment and software control must be subject to third-party technical certification. The implication is that it is non-existent at present.

As for track-readiness trials, the case of Hong Kong's West Rail Line is again instructive. Even after an open international bidding process and third-party technical certification, the KCRC still insisted on a so-called 'parallel test' for up to nine months. In other words, the new and the old systems were given parallel trial runs after normal working hours to ensure the new system fully complied with international standards. This included a debugging process for the software, and simulations of contingencies such as a short circuit of the signal fuse box by a lightning strike.

In the event of a system failure, it should have reverted to manual override. Such contingency measures and crisis management procedures were found to be grossly inadequate in the Wenzhou disaster. When the last line of defence - that is, manual override - fails, deadly consequences are inevitable.

The Wenzhou report listed eight recommendations to make improvements. Yet, they appear more for public consumption than actually addressing fundamental inadequacies. A key requirement, open international bidding, wasn't even mentioned. Common sense dictates that this would ensure safety and quality. It also makes the contract-awarding process more or less corruption-proof. So, the nagging question the report failed to address is: 'Why wasn't this done in the first place?'

There is also an underlying question that goes to the heart of management culture. On the mainland, it's 'efficiency first'. It is beyond question that, in the development of high-speed rail, China has been both bold and fast in its action. Within just five years, between 2005 and 2010, it constructed a new high-speed network of more than 6,500 kilometres of track, topping the world in efficiency and speed of construction. According to the railways ministry, another 16,000 kilometres of high-speed track will be laid in the next 10 years. Even without the spectre of corruption, such speed will result in quality being sacrificed. The signalling system, deprived of adequate dry runs, is bound to break down sooner or later. Trying to meet impossible deadlines will almost certainly have a deadly outcome.

In the real world, efficiency and safety often stand in opposition. China now faces a stark choice: a blind, headlong pursuit of speed, or a time-consuming series of safety trials.

There is something peculiar about mainland management philosophy and practice. According to internet chatter, railway workers are often subject to punitive pay deductions if services are delayed. If that's true, such management practices are putting passengers at risk. At the old KCRC, no worker ever had his or her pay docked for delayed services or a loss of corporate profits. Severe penalties were tied to corruption or lapses in rail safety.

Just 30 or so hours after the Wenzhou disaster, train services resumed. Rail experts agree that, with its complex signal system, getting to the bottom of the accident would take much longer. In Hong Kong, the priorities for railway operation when accidents occur are 'rescue, investigation and resumption of service'. On the mainland, investigation comes after service resumption.

Premier Wen Jiabao was right when he said that 'development and construction are for the people, and the most important thing is the safety of the people'. Unless there is a change of culture and priorities, China's speed will jeopardise safety and national pride.

Michael Tien Puk-sun is former chairman of the KCRC and vice-chairman of the New People's Party




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