Speedy growth lays tracks of China's tears
By Wu Zhong, China Editor

HONG KONG - The deadly collision of two bullet trains in eastern Zhejiang province on Saturday, in which 39 people were killed and another 192 injured, has raised fears not only over the safety of China's fast expanding high-speed rail network but also over its high-speed development under the so-called "China model".

As Chinese officials have made clear, the core of the China model is its political system, which is in essence autocratic, with decisions and policies made by officials without public consultation [1]. Decisions can be made and implemented quickly, making the China model more efficient than any democratic system and explaining to some extent why China has

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achieved such high-speed growth over the past 30 years.

However, speed in implementing decisions may not always be a good thing. While public consultation inevitably slows due processes, if mistakes are made in formulating policy, the quicker it is put into practice the more damage it may cause.

China has paid huge costs for its "efficient" high-speed growth in the past three decades, such as imbalanced development, environmental pollution and social injustice. More alarmingly, "success" has firmly implanted the idea that speed is everything in the minds of Chinese officials. Even Beijing has adopted speedy development as the yardstick to measure an official's performance.

From this perspective, it is far from enough for the Chinese government to apologize to the victims of Saturday's train accident and their families. The blood of the passengers killed and injured will not have been shed in vain only if the government draws a sincere lesson from the accident and conducts a thorough review of, in particular, its plan to build a nationwide high-speed rail network at "big leap forward" pace, and in general, its policy to chase after high-speed economic growth.

At the end of the 20th century, the government set ambitious goals to upgrade its rail network with four major horizontal (east-west) lines and four major transversal (north-south) links to be in place by 2020.

Many busy passenger rail lines have so far been upgraded to semi-high speed (up to 200 kilometers per hour, as in Zhejiang), while several links of high-speed rail (higher than 250 kilometers per hour) are in operation, such as the Beijing-Shanghai link and the Shenzhen-Guangzhou-Wuhan link.

Railway officials had apparently become dizzy with success as they boast that China now is number one in the world not only in the speed of construction of but also in the technologies for high-speed rail, surpassing Japan's shinkansen and Europe's bullet train. In recent years, they have set the goal of exporting China's high-speed rail technology to Southeast Asia, Russia, Europe and the United States.

Now the fatal accident in Zhenjiang, as well as troubles with the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed link after it started operations on June 30, have poured cold water on their ambitions.

In the first five days after the 1,318-kilometer Beijing-Shanghai high-speed rail, said to be built with over 80% of home-grown Chinese technologies, started business, six accidents have been caused by malfunctions.

Luckily, these only caused delays. Railways officials say such accidents are unavoidable in a rail link's early stages, but why then was it carrying passengers? This strengthens public suspicion that construction was sped up so it could be launched on June 30, as a "grand gift" to celebrate the 90th birthday of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on July 1.

Suspicion about the building quality of China's high-speed network rose in February when then-minister of railways Liu Zhijun, an enthusiastic advocate for building the nationwide high-speed rail network, and vice chief engineer Zhang Shuguang, known as the "father of China's high speed rail", were sacked and put under investigation for suspected corruption. [2] The officials were accused of taking billions of yuan in bribes to grant construction contracts for rail projects. In China, it is a truism that speed plus corruption always results in shabby construction.

While the accident on Saturday claimed 39 lives, the death toll would have been worse if the trains involved had been high-speed (gaoshu) and not the semi-high speed dongche.

The accident occurred at about 8:30 pm on a viaduct near the city of Wenzhou in Zhejiang when train D301 rear-ended D3115 (the prefix D stands for dongche). The collision caused six cars to derail, with four cars of the moving train falling from the viaduct onto the ground below and the last two cars of the stalled train derailing.

An initial investigation showed that D3115 had lost power and stalled after being struck by lightning, Xinhua News Agency reported, quoting Ministry of Railways spokesman Wang Yongping.

On behalf of the ministry, Wang expressed condolences to the victims and bereaved families and offered an apology to all passengers.

A total of 1,072 people were on the D3115 and 558 on D301 when the accident happened. As of Monday evening, it was confirmed that 39 passengers had been killed and 192 others injured, Xinhua said.

Wang said the crash also caused large financial losses - the services of 58 other trains were suspended on Sunday as the damaged tracks were repaired.

The section where the accident happened is under the jurisdiction of the Shanghai Railway Bureau. To ease growing public concern, authorities promptly announced the removal of three senior officials at the bureau, including its director and party chief, and the launching of an "urgent overhaul" of national rail safety.

Despite the accident, Wang said, "China's high-speed train is advanced and qualified. We have confidence in it."

But angry netizens are questioning how such a fast and advanced train could be so easily struck by lightening. And why did D3115 fail to send out warnings after it lost power and stalled? Was it due to human error or flaws in design and construction? Why didn't the crew on D3115 at least use their mobile phones to send out a warning, even if the communication system on the train malfunctioned? "Don't tell us none of the crew members has a mobile phone!" one blogger wrote.

Even state-run media have said that the accident points to safety controls on the rapidly-expanding network being too lax.

The Global Times, a sister newspaper of the CCP's flagship People's Daily, said the collision had "delivered a strong shock to China's social psychology, caused doubt toward the nation's railway construction plans ... The deadly crash on Saturday should become a bloody lesson for the entire railway industry in China. It should become a starting point for safer railway standards. The public should continue their attention and criticism and push authorities to respond quickly and fix problems." [3]

The People's Daily carried several commentaries. One said safety should rank above all else in building and running high-speed railways. Another called to give up development at the expense of safety.
Each time after the happening of an accident, authorities concerned would call a meeting and issue an emergency order for safety check. However, fatal accidents still frequently happen. Sometime, even when a meeting on safety is just over, another accident happens ... Bloody lessons keep warning us that the more eager we are for development, the more attention we should pay to safety. [4]
The Japanese media have long taken jibes at China for not admitting to copying Japan's shinkansen technologies in building its high-speed rails. On Monday, a report on Japan's Mainichi News Daily implied that while China had copied certain technologies of Japan's shinkansen train, it had overlooked its safety measures. it said:
A Japanese expert who analyzed video footage of the fatal bullet train accident in China said it was an accident hard to imagine happening in Japan, even though one of the trains involved appears to be one China modeled on a Japanese shinkansen train."

"Given the markings on their bodies, the train that rear-ended another appears to be the CRH2 model manufactured on the basis of technology from Japan's Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd while the one that was rear-ended is assumed to be the CRH1, based on technology from Canada's Bombardier Inc.

A source at the company, however, said it has long been concerned about the Chinese approach of prioritizing speed at the expense of safety.

A JR (Japan Rail) official said Japanese shinkansen systems have been equipped with automatic train control since they were inaugurated in 1964 because of the understanding that it is difficult for the driver to rely on visual confirmation in applying the brake on a high-speed service.

Japanese shinkansen trains are designed on the concept that they should be stopped whenever an anomaly is detected, the JR official said. Since their launch, no collisions have been caused, according to the official. [5]
While the chances of finding the exact cause of Saturday's accident depend on the Chinese authorities conducting a thorough investigation as promised, the incident will clearly impact on the public's confidence in safety of the railways and on the financial viability of the nationwide high-speed railway expansion.

Whether or not deadly accidents caused by negligence and corruption will eventually increase public supervision of China's decision-making process and high-speed development is even further down the tracks.

Notes 1. Undemocratic China can't rule the world, Asia Times Online, July 16, 2011.
2. Danger signals in China's high-speed graft, Asia Times Online, Mar 8, 2011) 3. Train crash lesson for railway progress, Global Times, Jul 25, 2011.
4. Click here for Chinese text. 5. Japanese expert says hard to imagine China's train accident in Japan