Railway ministry a bloated outfit few will mourn

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 March, 2013, 4:49am

The mainland's scandal-plagued Ministry of Railways, an unreconstructed relic of the planned economy era, will soon become history.

Few will mourn it.

In the 63 years since it was founded, the ministry has been a regular target of criticism for poor service and corruption.

Since the market reforms of the 1980s, it was a prime target for those seeking to separate government from commercial operations but, until now, it had always been a survivor.

Modelled on its counterpart in the former Soviet Union, the ministry has roughly 2.5 million staff and operates its own schools and hospitals. Until last year it even had its own courts and police force.

In the previous round of ministerial restructuring in 2008, a transport ministry was created, merging the Civil Aviation Administration of China and the State Post Bureau. But the railways ministry remained separate and accumulated more power due to the rapid building of a 9,300-kilometre high-speed rail network - at a cost of trillions of yuan.

Many have expressed doubts about whether such massive investment is really necessary for a developing nation.

In 2008, then railways minister Liu Zhijun told mainland media his ministry's autonomy suited mainland conditions.

"China's railway system is lagging behind its social development," he said. "In order to promote the rapid development of the railway network, the Ministry of Railways wasn't included in the reform [that created the new transport ministry]."

Cracks in that autonomous façade became visible two years ago when Liu was sacked for what state media said were "severe violations of discipline" and 40 people died in a high-speed train collision in Wenzhou .

Appointed railways minister in 2003, Liu played a leading role in the railway boom. He is now awaiting trial.

His right-hand man, Zhang Shuguang , the former deputy chief engineer of the mainland's railways, was also detained on suspicion of corruption. At least 15 senior rail officials have been dismissed for corruption since 2010, mainland media have reported.

Many ordinary mainlanders have viewed the ministry as a textbook example of top-level corruption and influence-peddling, with senior posts filled by people not up to the job.

Most of the ministry's top officials were groomed within its system and they have proved hard to eject, even when made the targets of disciplinary investigations.

Geng Zhixiu, who was sacked as director of the Jinan Railway Bureau after an accident in 2008, is now the ministry's safety director and a deputy chief engineer.

And the Communist Party gave deputy minister Hu Yadong a major demerit following a train collision that same year in which more than 70 people died.

About 500 people have died in six separate major accidents on the mainland's railways since 2005.

The Ministry of Railways was established in 1949, right after the Communist Party took power, and was long regarded as one of the most influential government departments, with many of its ministers later becoming state leaders.

The first reform of the ministry was planned in 1987, but it was abandoned after then minister Ding Guangen resigned following a series of train crashes that killed scores of people. Ding , a bridge partner of then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping , was not punished and later became head of the party's propaganda department. In early 2000, another attempt at reforming the ministry failed after those opposing change argued that splitting it up could have a negative impact on national security.