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PUBLIC TRANSPORT

Impatient Beijing subway commuters get the better of German fare machines

Superior foreign technology often fails when put to the test in China's different market conditions

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 November, 2013, 4:33am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 November, 2013, 12:41pm

European-made equipment which collects fares on the Beijing subway may be advanced, but is proving seemingly incapable of coping with Chinese passengers in a hurry.

Several times a year, engineers have had to fly in from Germany to deal with various operational glitches, in particular the jamming up of the system, according to a manager with the company.

"Our technical experts were puzzled why the machines, which have worked perfectly in Europe for years, failed in China all the time," he said, declining to be named due to business sensitivities. "They were shocked by what they found."

In Europe, passengers keep a certain distance from each other and feed their tickets into the machine only after the person in front has passed through.

But in China, impatient passengers follow closely behind each other and often insert their ticket before the gate opens for the person in front.

"Our German engineers assumed there would be two to three seconds between two tickets, but in China even half a second seems too long," he said.

The problem has proved tough to fix. Engineers not only needed to rewrite software code, but also redesign parts. So far the foreign technicians have not come up with an effective solution to counter the impatience of mainland passengers.

As a result, in Beijing and many other Chinese cities, fare-collection equipment is often manned by subway employees who constantly remind passengers to back off or, when the machines fail, collect fares by hand.

Public transport is one of the many sectors in China where foreign technology has stumbled. At the same time, pressure on multinationals competing in China has increased as local companies have sensed an opportunity to find products with a better fit for the local market.

Zhang Yi, general sales manager with the Cheng Li Special Automobile Company, one of the largest Chinese producers of city maintenance vehicles, said that until recently mainland officials preferred buying overseas technology and brands.

"Foreign companies have been making these vehicles for decades. There is no denying that their technology is more advanced in some areas," Zhang said. "And some officials felt that a fancy-looking street sweeper from a developed country would improve the city's image."

But in the past five or six years, most Chinese cities, including Beijing and Shanghai, have given up on foreign maintenance equipment.

"Chinese streets are often littered with garbage that is much greater in size and quantity than in Europe or America," Zhang said. "This significantly shortens the lifespan of foreign sweepers, that is if they don't choke to death right away."

Domestically produced machines may not have fancy technology or sleek looks "but they get the job done", he added.

Another disadvantage of foreign products is price. Domestic vehicles often come at half or one-third of the cost of overseas competitors, and local replacement parts are cheaper and more readily available.

"We have invested tens of millions of yuan a year on research and development to provide a speedy response to the requirements of customers. I don't think foreign companies can outdo us on this."

Zhang said his company's vehicles had not only won battles in the domestic market, but were exported in rising numbers to Africa, Russia and Southeast Asia.

"We are still kept out of Europe and America because our pollutant emissions exceed their environmental standards," he said.

"But the problem can be solved. We will eventually enter these markets with our well-tested technology and down-to-earth prices."

Professor Wang Xifu, director of the System Engineering and Control Research Institute at Beijing Jiaotong University's School of Traffic and Transportation, said China had relied on foreign technology and equipment for two decades since the 1980s for the sake of rapid economic development.

"Back then, our priority was speed and we wanted to buy anything that could be used immediately," he said. "Our interest has gradually moved on to quality and the various issues of foreign technology have been exposed."

Wang said 10 years ago China's research effort was still small, but now there were many researchers in almost every important field working to come up with technology that was globally competitive.

"To overseas companies this is bad news," Wang said.

Many foreign technologies did not work in China, due to a variety of reasons.

Pig waste fermentation technology widely used in Europe and Japan did not work because Chinese pigs were fed so many antibiotics that their waste killed helpful bacteria, according to a report last year by the Guangdong agricultural authorities.

German carmaker Volkswagen reportedly discontinued the use of a particular gearbox because Chinese traffic jams caused it to have frequent system failures.

Waste-processing plants built with technology from developed countries were frequently overwhelmed by the huge amount of pollutants in Chinese rivers and urban drainage systems, according to mainland media reports.

But Professor Cao Qixin, a robotics expert at Shanghai Jiaotong University, said China still relied on overseas technology in sensitive areas such as space projects.

"Our researchers can come up with good ideas and superb designs, but turning them into products is another story," he said.

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This article is now closed to comments

ianson
People shoving themselves through turnstiles, massive garbage on the streets, pigs overloaded with antibiotics, polluting locally-made equipment and filthy rivers. It's not the equipment that needs changing, it's China's system.
mercedes2233
The machines should meet people's needs, not the other way round.
rkact@robertkist.com
People here are always in an impatient hurry. Just look at the traffic, all the crazy honking when someone doesn't react in an instant when the traffic light switches from red to green. Same thing at elevators, queues, counters, etc. The only people who're never in a hurry are those working in the service sector... the hours I've wasted at mainland banks...
twtchow
Why does this sound like people in China are / should be proud of their uncivilized behavior? How does this help improve China’s national image?
andreaswagner
There is 'idiot proof' and then there is 'China proof'.
jonasbordeu@gmail.com
Look, I'm a tourist to HK and find HK people queue up too close to me even when I am at the ATM machines! That was just rude!!! But, after a while in HK, I realise that I should have put myself in their shoes, and understand that space in HK is limited. Even a bedroom. It is understandable that personal space is smaller than what I am more used to, and to make space for a larger corridor for people to walk through not one ATM queue blocking the whole corridor or pathway.
You should not talk about the Chinese people as if they are wrong or uncivilised. Live there and put yourself in their shoes for at least once.
chaz_hen
Brilliant Chinese confound the Westerners yet again!
HK-Lover
Having sold machinery made in Europe to China since the eighties I learnt that for China you need machinery which you can beat up with a hammer and it still works. Yes, local equipment cost only a fraction of imported equipment and you can buy 3-4 units for the same price and these 3-4 units get the jobs done because while 2 are in for repair the other 2 work, although generating a lower quality in result (this is from 30 yrs experience in various different industries).
However, the core problem is the behavior of the operators and users. The people have a lack of basic upbringing and education how to behave, what to do and not. Beijing commuters are not more in a hurry than the ones in Tokyo, New York or Berlin but they are lack of courtesy. In HK visitors from the mainland have the tendency to stand right in front of the MTR doors and don't let people exit - maybe it's the wrong design of the MTR and the locally build ones have the doors to the left and right of were the people stand to enter the MTR ?
And if people stop to throw anything just into the streets but discard properly, the imported street sweepers would do a perfect job. And when seeing the poor conditions of the roads in China (even on brand new highways you have potholes) and the way drivers treat their cars the only solution is back to the bicycles and even they need constant repair due to the circumstances and behavior .
dng18dng18
Not being discriminatory, my experience with ordinary mainlanders has been this. They don't queue, they talk loudly, they push and shove and they have no manners. It's like they have not being educated before. However, this is changing rapidly. 1st tier cities such as Shanghai have almost equal standards to HK. Beijing I'm not so sure. Further, the mainlanders working in HK such as in iBanks command alot of respect from my experience.
The ones with little or no education usually are from 3rd tier cities or the countryside.
Stephan
well they are!

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