My wife was a "nervous Nellie" as we rode the Harmony CRH2-series high-speed train from Shanghai to Beijing last month. China's former minister of railways had just been convicted of big-time corruption in the construction of the rail network. As the train sped up to 310 kilometres an hour, she recalled the news images of China's first high-speed train disaster two years ago in Wenzhou, with its more than 230 casualties.
But the Harmony CRH2 is a modified version of Japan's vaunted Shinkansen "bullet train", which has had no fatal accidents in 50 years of operation, I reassured her. The technology was transferred from Kawasaki Heavy Industries, one of the makers of the bullet train, as well as Germany's Siemens and other hi-tech heavyweights. Running on the most advanced technology, how unsafe can high-speed rail travel in China be?
The answer, as it turns out, is less than reassuring. The reasons range from the rapid construction of the railways to the integration of technologies from multiple sources, from the quality of the materials to the maintenance of the vast national network. These system-wide issues are the result of China's aggressive effort to roll out the world's largest high-speed rail network at high speed. Indeed, this must be the first time in the history of technology deployment that a country has acquired, developed, manufactured and operated a new technology on a continental scale within a few years.
China announced its plan to build an express rail network in 2004; three years later, commercial high-speed trains began running on the first line, between Shenyang and Qinhuangdao in the northeast. Construction of the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed line commenced in April 2008 and commercial service less than three years later.
The Beijing-Guangzhou line, the world's longest at 2,298 kilometres, was in service by 2012. From 2004 to the end of last year, China built 9,800 kilometres of high-speed routes, more than the rest of the world combined.
By comparison, Japan pioneered the development of high-speed trains in the mid-1950s but its first bullet train went into service only in 1964 and nationwide service was phased in over a decade. The network has transported 10 billion passengers safely over half a century.
In the past 50 years there have been just three serious deadly crashes among the 20 countries that have high-speed-rail networks.
In 1998, near Eschede in northern Germany, a hairline crack in a wheel derailed the train, wrecking nearly all 16 cars and killing 101 people. In July 2011, a Chinese high-speed train collided with a stationary one outside Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, killing 40 and injuring 192. And on July 24 this year, a high-speed train derailed in northwest Spain when the driver rounded a curve at excessive speed, leading to 78 deaths.
The cause of the accidents is revealing. The one in Germany was caused by a single point of failure, the cracked wheel; the one in Spain by human error. The accident in China, however, was caused by a breakdown in the signalling system, which is a vital component of the control and communications infrastructure of a rail network.
It's a systemic problem, which has more serious implications than a single point of failure or human error. After the Wenzhou collision, an investigation by the railways ministry reported that 106 of the 168 flaws identified in high-speed trains across the country were caused "by design and manufacturing quality problems".
A year after the Wenzhou disaster, an accident in Hubei province pointed to another systemic issue. In March 2012, a 300-metre section of a high-speed railway collapsed in a rainstorm. There were no casualties and it attracted little media attention. Officials blamed the rain but later admitted nine kilometres of track needed to be replaced. They found that the foundation under the tracks had sunk as much as 4.22 millimetres.
High-speed railways run on "ballastless" track technology that enables very fast yet smooth rides on tracks that won't warp with heavy use. The tracks rest on slabs made of a mix of high-quality fly ash, concrete and gravel. Fly ash, a by-product of coal-fired power plants, makes the concrete much stronger and more durable. But all the coal-fired power plants in China and the rest of the world could not possibly produce enough high-quality fly ash for the thousands of kilometres of high-speed lines that have been laid annually on the mainland.
Deploying a new technology on a compressed schedule is daunting enough. China had to integrate technology transfers from four different suppliers: Kawasaki, Siemens, France's Alstom and Canada's Bombardier. They adapted their trains to the Chinese standard and built them in co-operation with Chinese manufacturers. Some trains were delivered by the foreign companies, some were kits assembled at Chinese facilities, some were built in China using transferred technology with domestic and imported parts. The tracks were built by the China Railway Corporation under the now-defunct ministry of railways. Such diverse sourcing of technology poses tremendous challenges in the operation and maintenance of the system and the training of technical staff.
The technology transfers were also beset by issues of nationalism and distrust that led suppliers to truncate some transfers. Kawasaki pulled out after just two years, charging that China Railways had violated the terms of the technology transfer by exporting the technology as its own. Even as it was rolling out its network, China was marketing the trains to Turkey, Venezuela, Brazil, Russia and Myanmar at prices that undercut those of the German and Japanese firms.
After a swift, silent journey of four hours and 28 minutes, we arrived safely in Beijing South station. The 1,318 kilometre ride could not have been more comfortable. But China's high-speed trains have far to travel before they measure up against the relatively safe record of high-speed trains worldwide.
Tom Yam is a Hong Kong-based management consultant with a doctorate in electrical engineering and an MBA from Wharton School. He has worked at AT&T, Ernst & Young and IBM