Train travel in post-Wenzhou China: on the Hubei collapse and the safety of the high-speed rail network

Culture | by James Weir
Posted: March 20th, 2012 | Updated: October 22nd, 2012 | Comments
Hubei rial collapse_China train travel Last Monday, 12 March 2012, news trickled down the various Chinese and English media organs about a section of high-speed rail that collapsed in Hubei Province, with the affected section ranging in length from the officially announced Beijing (or, more accurately, at least uninterrupted by this scandal).

Unanswered questions

So the biggest question surrounding the high-speed rail network in China remains: is it safe? The answer is obviously a complicated one. The chances of being injured in a high-speed train crash are statistically minute; after all, almost 300 million people rode one of China's high-speed trains in 2010. But when you look at the Japanese Shinkansen network, which hasn't seen a single death related to crashes or derailments since its inaugural voyage in 1964, that seemingly-reassuring Chinese statistic can seem decidedly less so (this comparison is even more embarrassing considering this Wenzhou disaster). Read on for more on China's high-speed railways... Incredulously, the official explanation for last week's collapse in Hubei is persistent rains. Again, just to be clear: persistent rains brought down a section of railroad, a brand-new section of track that had never been inflicted with the kinds of stresses one would expect a railroad to be more than well-equipped to bear—if it couldn't handle a steady drizzle, what the hell would have happened if it were subjected to actual, heavy use? What if it hadn't rained, and the track had stayed standing until its official opening? What if it had rained while there was a train full of passengers on the track? It should be noted that the track, though unopened, had undergone all the relevant safety checks, test runs and inspections for its planned May opening. Reports suggest that the collapse was the result of contractors substituting soil for rocks and gravel in the foundation of the rail-bed, a cost-cutting measure that unsurprisingly poses serious long-term infrastructural risks. How widespread this practice is/was is unclear.

Troubling implications

To me, this collapse is troubling for two main reasons. First, it is extremely unsettling that in the wake of the Wenzhou crash such a thing could happen. The Wenzhou crash was tragic, seemingly avoidable, and whipped the Weibosphere into a frenzy. The Wenzhou disaster created a justifiably upset public who then brought their outrage down upon the corrupt and opacity-prone officials involved like the hammer of some Chinese, smartphone-toting Thor. It's almost unfathomable that after such an incident there would exist any government/railway official, worker or engineer that would be party to any corner-cutting or money-saving solutions, or would take part in the construction of a railroad that would be anything short of phenomenally-constructed and painstakingly-tested for the same kinds of inadequacies and oversight that led to the disaster in Wenzhou. Yet cracks in the process remain startlingly visible. Wenzhou train crash The second aspect of this incident that seems threatening is the likelihood that it will have less impact on policy and the mindset of the general population than it probably should. Without death, this concrete-crumbling indication of oversight and/or corruption will invariably have a much shorter half-life than that of a more terrible, bloodier disaster. Indeed, here we are, 11 days after the collapse and 8 after it was first reported, and news of the cause and effect of the event have all but ceased. Another interesting thread running through the two events is this: it was the unsuccessful cover-up of Wenzhou that made the crash into the media-behemoth it became—without images of bodies being extracted from half buried trains and bumbling railway-executives flat-out lying to the media and public, the outpouring of grief that inevitably followed would most likely have remained just that. Instead, that same grief took root and found solace in outrage over corrupt, dishonest officials and governmental offices too embarrassed and seemingly-guilty to take accountability for the tragedy. This time around, without death and with the successful repression of the story (at least for a time), it is hard not to wonder about that old saying concerning a tree falling in an empty forest. And it is hard not to wonder what would have happened in the wake of Wenzhou were it not for the amateur paparazzi that documented the event in the days that followed. [pullquote]It is almost certain that the root of this specific failure began long before the Wenzhou crash[/pullquote]It is almost certain that the root of this specific failure began long before the Wenzhou crash, and one can only hope that the quality of the railways being built in China has increased significantly in the months since the crash. But it is nonetheless disheartening that even in post-Wenzhou China, where the cost of corner-cutting can be so tangibly measured in individual, human lives, there still exists a strata of officials unwilling to spend the money, or undergo the inevitable loss of face, that is required to ensure the safety of the passengers, be it during the initial construction or the subsequent inspections of a "finished" line.

Looking to the future

The question of whether or not to take the high-speed trains is no doubt a personal one, and a decision that would ideally be informed by and based upon an open, honest discussion of the safety of the high-speed rail network led by the Ministry of Transportation. For what it's worth, I will continue traveling by high-speed train, though it won't be without a faint sense of trepidation, and I don't expect the Ministry of Transportation to assuage my fears anytime soon. But I sincerely hope that the implications of the Hubei collapse aren't as dire as they may seem, and that the event may instill in those with power the inarguable realization that change must come, that there must be a significant sea-change in the way China oversees its institutions, lest this mostly-harmless embarrassment be overshadowed by another tragedy on the scale of Wenzhou. So the trains may be dangerous in a vague, intangible way—these kinds of things never happen to you, after all—but they are sleek, comfortable and affordable (though the migrant worker and peasant classes of China will still be found on the extensive slow-train and bus routes), and will remain tempting to the tourist and well-heeled Mainland citizen alike. It's important to remember that traveling in any country by any means is not without risk (after all, let us not forget the dangers of driving everywhere in the world), and in China the risk of traveling by high-speed train is most certainly overshadowed by the reward. That reward is, at least in part, this: gliding at a blistering speed, perhaps even into the crimson sunset, dozens of meters above the ground, soundlessly blasting across the countryside and into the heart of China's most booming cities. It is difficult to argue with that.
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