China's railway troubles have spooked the modern emperors in Beijing

Chinese Premier Wen lays a bouquet of flowers to mourn for victims of the Wenzhou train crash (Photo: Reuters)

Wen Jiabao lays a bouquet of flowers for victims of the Wenzhou train crash (Photo: Reuters)

China s decision to suspend all new high-speed railway projects, pending further checks on the safety of its much-vaunted high-speed railway network, is yet another indication of how deeply the Wenzhou rail disaster has spooked the powers-that-be in Beijing.

The government in China may be autocratic, but that doesn t mean it isn t keen to be seen to respond to public outrage, particularly when it feels the noose of hostile public opinion, which has veered towards lynch-mob mentality of late, tightening around its neck. Even the trusted party mouthpiece, People s Daily, warned after the accident about the risk of  Bloody GDP  putting economic gain above people s lives. (And as the railway corruption scandals have shown, China s major investment projects tend to bring  economic benefits to party officials more quickly than anything else.)

As a result of the outcry following the accident, trains are to be run slower, timetables are to be changed to put a greater gap between trains, and a more independent investigation team is to be set up to look into the causes that (after the burying of the wreckage) many believe were initially covered up.

Such measures, though belated, are to be applauded, but they cannot paper over the reality of rock-bottom public distrust in China s railways, which were already under scrutiny before the Wenzhou disaster after several break-downs on the new Beijing-Shanghai line. Grievances among the Chinese people are often said to be  localised , which is to say that people blame local officials, not the top-dogs in Beijing, for everything  from land grabs to lead poisonings, oil spills to shoddily built schools  that collapses during earthquakes. It is not the autocratic system of governance or the ruling Communist Party that is at fault for these failings, the argument goes, but the foibles of individuals who let down the well-intentioned leaders in Beijing.

The Wenzhou rail disaster, however, threatens to explode that fallacy, which has protected China s Communist emperors just as it did previous generations of feudal emperors before them.

The high-speed rail network is a national project; it is built and regulated by a national government ministry and has been mandated as a national prestige project for China s ruling Communist Party. There is no escaping the national share of blame. Its manifest failings  vanity, corruption, shoddy construction and lax enforcement  suddenly cannot be passed off as some local aberration, like the flattened schools of Sichuan. Instead, they reflect systemic failings that can be seen replicated nationally, from the house of the lowliest village party secretary right up to the mandarins sheltering behind the high walls of Beijing s modern Forbidden City, Zhongnanhai.

Chinese Premier Wen lays a bouquet of flowers to mourn for victims of the Wenzhou train crash (Photo: Reuters)

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You mean the Chinese might riot 'English' style?

  I would feel far safer on a train here than my daily crossings of roads here in N Sichuan by foot.
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I have made several journeys in high speed trains in China.  They were excellent, efficient, comfortable and popular.  I am sure that people are much more likely to be killed on the roads than in trains. Good, fast trains are the optimal solution to many modern problems, including overcrowding and pollution.  Railways are the future again and any massive investment in them should be applauded.
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The high speed trains were less than half full anyway because normal people can't afford to travel on them, now I'd imagine they'll be virtually empty.

If people think they're walking onto a death-trap then it'll take a lot more than just cutting down the speed and frequency of the service to restore confidence.
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They are not "virtually empty".  The Nanjing-Shanghai line is practically full everytime (I'd venture to say 90% capacity).  

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this is all very good but you overlook the fact that this accident occured not on one of the new high speed trains but with one of the earlier generation "dong che" that have been in service for a number of years. if the real reason for this tragedy ever reaches the light of day expect it to be down to sloppy specifications (lightining is predictable i'd say) and sloppy can train grind to a halt and then for nearly half an hour nobody notices or reports the problem. as with much of china the hardware isnt the problem its the software...the people and fixing the software is going to take generations i'm afraid.
There is research on pneumatic tube transport (see vactrain) around the world including in China at CAS and CAE.   Could be just a pipe dream though.
Pipe dream in a pneumatic tube ?  I like it already.
hmm, sounds like I missed an entendre or two..
The line was opened only a couple of years ago and the D class class trains are pretty new, circa 2008. The New Beijing Shanghai line has also had lightning problems etc. In most cases development of new trains takes many years, not just a couple as in the csae of CRH380A etc.

I wonder if it is as one of the designers said a fundemental control problem, or possibly a maintenance problem as lighting protection need to be maintaned particularily after numerous lightning strikes.

However the old proverb, less haste more speed comes to mind.
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A review of safety seems an entirely sensible precaution after a major accident.

Since they found the problem is with the signaling and control system, they recalled the trains, but not the signaling and control system.  Great system. It's probably because the signaling and control systems were of Chinese design and Chinese manufacture.