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China Failed to Heed Rail Safety Warnings

Jamil Anderlini in Beijing

The collision of two Chinese bullet trains on Saturday night is first and foremost a human tragedy.

The wreckage of a carriage is lifted from the accident scene of the crash caused by the earlier collision of two trains on July 24, 2011 in Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province of China. The accident occurred on the evening of July 23 when the D301 train, travelling from Beijing to Fuzhou, collided with the D3115 train, travelling from Hangzhou to Fuzhou, which had stalled on the line after a suspected lightening strike. The first four coaches of D301 fell off the viaduct while the 15th and 16th coaches o
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The fate of Xiang Weiyi, a two-year-old girl who lay for 21 hours in the twisted wreckage near the corpses of her parents, has transfixed the public in China.

So has the story of Yang Feng, who lost his seven-month pregnant wife and three other relatives in the crash and has questioned the accuracy of the official death toll, which is at least 39, according to state media reports.

As families grieve and demand answers beyond the official explanation that lightning caused the crash, there are many in the railway industry who are quietly shaking their heads and whispering that they saw this coming.

In the last year and a half, many rail experts have warned that the country’s rush to build the world’s longest and fastest high speed rail network in record time was a recipe for disaster.

As well as proving them tragically right, this crash puts an end to the Chinese government’s ambitions to sell its nascent high-speed rail technology to the world, at least for the foreseeable future.

The crash came barely four years after China’s first high speed trains began operating.

Compare that to Japan, where the bullet train network has not had any major accidents involving injuries or deaths since it started running in 1964, according to Japanese officials.

As it happens, Japanese officials were the ones who spoke out the loudest about safety concerns in China and the Chinese rail industry’s industrial-scale copying of rail technology bought over the last decade from foreign companies such as Japan’s Kawasaki, Germany’s Siemens, France’s Alstom and Canada’s Bombardier.

The Chinese railway ministry and state owned rail companies have repeatedly said China owns virtually all the intellectual property for its high speed rail technology, which it acquired through a process they describe as: “technology importation, digestive absorption, independent re-innovation and localization”.

But executives at foreign rail companies have long complained that trains meant to run at up to 200km/h have been copied, modified somewhat and then made to run at speeds that they were never designed for, potentially compromising their safety.

Some of these executives have also told the Financial Times that they refuse to ride on China’s high speed trains because of safety concerns.

Given the serious questions that already hang over the provenance of Chinese high speed rail technology, it seems unlikely that any other country will risk the lives of its citizens on imported Chinese bullet trains, no matter how cheap they are.

The crash and the way it has been handled by the railway ministry and other departments have also raised wider questions from Chinese citizens about the state of governance in their country.

China’s minister of railways was fired in February for “disciplinary violations” that apparently involved taking huge bribes but nobody expects that his dismissal has solved the problem of corruption at the Ministry.

After Saturday’s crash, the authorities quickly sacked three senior railway officials from the Shanghai Railway Bureau, including the bureau head. But the Chinese public was outraged when the government named as his replacement An Lusheng, the railway ministry’s general chief of command and control.

It turns out that Mr An was previously demoted in connection with China’s last major train disaster, when two trains collided in April, 2008, in Shandong Province, killing 71 people. He was moved to a regional post, shuffled around different jobs and then restored to his old position within two years.

Further outrages include the sight of wrecked carriages being buried next to the track less than 24 hours after the fatal collision and a video posted online of what appear to be bodies falling out of those carriages as they were moved.

Even China’s tightly controlled state media has raised questions about a governance system that protects its own so well while reacting to disasters in such an opaque and heartless manner.

Coming after scandals involving tainted Chinese products, the crash will tarnish the image of China Inc in the global marketplace.

But probably the bigger damage to perceptions will be done at home in China, where on Monday one citizen microblogger summed up the sentiment in a widely circulated posting: “Today’s China is a bullet train racing through a thunderstorm – and we are all passengers onboard.”