Blowing the whistle on 'Big Brother'
By Wu Zhong, China Editor

HONG KONG - Just as Beijing officials were breathing a sigh of relief that the Olympic torch relay had finished its international tour and returned to Chinese soil, last week's fatal train accident in northern Shandong province has sounded another alert for the country's security and safety.

More importantly, the accident has once again drawn public attention to the fundamental problems inherent in the railway system. In the past three decades of economic reforms, other industrial ministries have spun off their business operations to become industrial regulators or have simply been dismantled. But the Ministry of Railways remains a stronghold of the command
economy, as it continues to monopolize rail transportation while also acting as the industry's regulating body.

The annual session of the National People's Congress (NPC) endorsed the latest restructuring of the State Council, China's cabinet, to merge ministries with similar functions into several super ministries. The Ministry of Railways once again escaped restructuring, despite early talks that it would be merged into the Ministry of Transportation and Communication. Now, after the April 29 collision, calls are being renewed to reform the Ministry of Railways into a business operation with independent supervision.

The latest rail accident occurred in the early morning on the Qingdao-Jinan railway in Shandong province. A passenger train traveling from Beijing to Qingdao jumped its tracks, leaving nine of its carriages toppled across the rails, and causing another passenger train coming from the opposite direction to derail. At least 70 people were killed and another 416 injured.

According to Xinhua News Agency, an initial investigation found the accident was caused by human error. The derailed train was traveling at 131 kilometers per hour before the accident, far in excess of the speed limit of 80 km on that section of the Qingdao-Jinan railway. If this proves true after investigations, the conductor or conductors concerned must be held directly responsible.

The tragedy is apparently also a result of poor management and supervision of the local railway authority; and this is the second fatal accident in three months under its jurisdiction. Immediately after the accident, Beijing sacked the director of the Jinan Railway Bureau, Chen Gong, and its Communist Party chief, Cai Tiemin, and put them under investigation.

Built in 1904, the Qingdao-Jinan railway is one of the oldest lines in China still in operation. As planned, this century-old railway will stop carrying passengers before the Beijing Olympics in August but will continue to transport freight. A high-speed passenger rail link is now under construction ahead of the Games as Qingdao will play host to the sailing competitions.

Fresh in the minds of the public, however, is that in late January - at the construction site of the new Qingdao-Jinan high-speed passenger rail link - a rolling train crushed 18 workers to death. It was said at the time that the accident occurred because the workers had started work earlier than permitted by rules.

Two deadly accidents have occurred in the space of three months; and in addition to the persons directly responsible for the accidents, the Jinan Railway Bureau must also be held responsible.

With Chen and Cai sacked, the question is whether Minister of Railways Liu Zhijun will shoulder the blame and step down. Many netizens are urging Beijing to sack him if he refuses to resign. To support their argument, many bloggers are recalling another fatal rail accident 20 years ago. On January 24, 1988, an express train from Kunming to Shanghai toppled, killing 90 passengers, including some Japanese travelers. The minister of railways at the time, Ding Guangen, known to be leader Deng Xiaoping's favorite bridge partner, was to blame and resigned. If Ding, close to the "supreme leader" as he was, had to step down, why shouldn't Liu?

According to an online survey by, by last Sunday 84% of participants said Liu should step down.

In fact, many Chinese have taken the opportunity to vent their frustration with the poor quality of the country's railway transport, particularly its shortcomings during the yearly Spring Festival period. This year, millions of passengers were stranded in trains or in stations during the holiday due to heavy snowstorms. With no apology, a spokesman for the Ministry of Railways boasted that they had down a good job under the circumstances. Such perceived arrogance angered not only the public, but many government officials.

Fundamental problems exist in the railway system, analysts say. Not the least of which is the fact that the Ministry of Railways is both the monopoly operator and regulator of all rail transportation. If this system is not restructured - regardless of whether Liu is replaced - nothing will change.

China's railways haul the heaviest loads in the world. According to statistics, one third of all public transport passengers and half of transported freight in China are carried by rail. According to official statistics, last year the Chinese made 1.3 billion trips on the railway network. This figure is expected to increase to 1.4 billion this year.

To meet growing demand, the government has increased its expenditure on rail links. Speeding up construction of the railway network has become a priority in national development plans. From 2003 to 2007, China spent US$71.5 billion on building railways. And the government said it would put in an additional $41.2 billion this year to build high-speed railways, including the one linking Beijing to Shanghai.

At present, some 2 million people work under the mammoth Ministry of Railways, known as the "Big Brother" of government agencies. In terms of manpower, it could match the People's Liberation Army, and in fact China's railway giant does operate in some semi-military ways. The ministry runs its own schools, hospitals, telecommunications and construction companies. For such a gigantic bureaucratic body to function efficiently while maintaining its own regulation and supervision, would be surprising.

Fatal train accidents are frequent. According to the State Administration of Work Safety, in 2005 on average 20 people were killed each day in rail accidents. It said the death toll remarkably dropped in 2006 and 2007 without providing figures.

It's high time for Beijing to start restructuring the Ministry of Railways, and public support is galvanizing in the wake of the April 29 accident.

In this regard, experience could be drawn from reform of China's civil aviation industry. Before 2002, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), similar to the Ministry of Railways, was the state monopoly and regulator of the industry.

It was equally inefficient in business operations and ineffective in supervision. The CAAC, in fact, was often interpreted as "China air flights always canceled" or "China's aircraft always crash". But after reform, business operations were spun off from the CAAC to form commercial airlines and what's left of the CAAC functions as the industry regulator.

Without conflicts of interest, it supervises the industry more effectively and impartially. And while major airlines are still state-owned or controlled, they are competing with each for market share: forced to keep improving their management, efficiency and services. As a result, air accidents have been sharply reduced.

This summer will be a high-travel season. With the Olympics, many people including foreigners will be traveling across the country by rail - and more travelers means more chances for transport accidents. Whether Beijing will take the April 29 accident as an opportunity to restructure China's railway system is yet to be seen. But the fatal accident has blown the whistle on an underperforming government industry and calamities that are waiting to happen.

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