China’s High-Speed Rail Accident ‘Struck a Nerve’

BY Larisa Epatko  August 10, 2011 at 2:11 PM EDT


Workers clear wreckage of train accident in July. Photo by STR/AFP/Getty Images

The fatal collision of two high-speed trains last month in China was not only a blow to the country’s growing transportation system, but also to the nation’s use of the system as a sign of its rising status.

On July 23, a high-speed train heading south from Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province in eastern China, stalled and was rear-ended by a second train as it sat stranded on an elevated track in Wenzhou. Forty people died.

It was the first major accident on China’s high-speed rail system since it began service in 2007. The high-speed system is expected to span 10,000 miles by 2020 and had been touted as a national achievement.

In response to the July 23 accident, officials suspended the service of 58 high-speed trains — to Wenzhou, Fuzhou and Xiamen — and called for a country-wide safety check. The government has pledged to do a thorough review, but in some ways the damage had already been done.

“I think for a lot of people it was a warning signal that the country has moved too far, too fast with its high-speed rail,” said Kathleen McLaughlin, GlobalPost’s Beijing correspondent. “This was the showpiece of China’s latest boom, part of how it got through the economic crisis, and a key point that other countries cited when talking about China’s rise. Now the system is being called into question.”

While tragic, the number of deaths did not equate to a massive number in a country where people die routinely in coal mines, said McLaughlin. But the crash “struck a nerve” because the high-speed rail system had been showcased in the country and because of the allegations of corruption in the railway ministry. In February, the head of the ministry, Liu Zhijun, was removed over alleged corruption and construction problems.

China issued media censorship directives a week after the crash, “but the horse had already left the barn,” said McLaughlin. The ban was partly ignored by even the big state-owned media, she said. “Social media like Weibo (a Chinese micro-blogging site) and other platforms had pushed the envelope so far that it seems the standard media wasn’t willing to backtrack.”

The accident also garnered attention in the media and elsewhere because it affected China’s middle and upper class, who were able to afford tickets on the high-speed rail, said McLaughlin. “These are people who have potentially more pull in the system and the media knows that. They can’t be ignored as easily as poor farmers.”

The accident raised questions about whether the Chinese state-owned company’s other contracts would be in peril. But on Monday China South Locomotive and Rolling Stock Corp. signed a 2.54 billion yuan ($395 million) contract to provide trains to Turkmenistan — its second major deal since the accident, Agence France-Presse reported.

But on Wednesday, the Financial Times reported that China’s railway ministry ordered the country’s other major train manufacturing company — China North Locomotive and Rolling Stock Corp. — to suspend making the bullet trains because of an improperly working automatic safety system that was causing delays on its Shanghai to Beijing line.

In a statement, the company said it would make adjustments in its designs to ensure “efficiency and punctuality.” It did not mention the accident in July.

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