China Freezes New Railway Projects After High-Speed Train Crash

After last month’s high-speed rail accident in Wenzhou, the Chinese government has suspended approval of new railway projects and will undertake a series of safety tests on existing trains. From Reuters:

China plans to suspend new railway project approvals and launch safety checks on existing equipment to address growing public concern following a deadly crash between two high-speed trains last month, Premier Wen Jiabao was quoted as saying by state media Wednesday.

The government has struggled to address public fury over a July 23 crash near the booming coastal city of Wenzhou that killed at least 40 people after one high-speed train apparently rammed into another one stranded on the track, prompting question marks over technology promoted as a symbol of the nation’s growing prowess.

Wen told the state council, China’s cabinet, in a regular meeting that checks will be conducted on the quality of equipment, the design and staff training on existing high-speed projects and those under construction, according to state radio.

More details on the State Council’s new safety guidelines for high speed rails. From Xinhua:

The State Council, or the Cabinet, on Wednesday ordered safety checks on high-speed railways and slower running speeds.

The decision was made at an executive meeting of the State Council, which was presided over by Premier Wen Jiabao, in the wake of a deadly bullet train crash that killed 40 people.

The safety checks cover high-speed railways that are both in operation and under construction, said a statement released after the meeting.

The State Administration of Work Safety will lead the inspection on equipment quality, operation safety, and design and quality of rails under construction, the statement said.

The statement also ordered newly-built high-speed rails to run at slower speeds during the initial stages for safety and improvement in techniques and management.

The government will reevaluate the system safety on rail projects that have received government approval but have not commenced construction, the statement said, requiring a halt of approval of new railway projects.

For many Chinese, the high-speed rail accident is indicative of the danger that economic development at breakneck speeds can harbor. From PBS News:

“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, wasremoved 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, 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.”

August 10, 2011 2:23 PM
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Categories: Politics, Sci-Tech, Society