Rail & Infrastructure

Costly delays

Embarrassment for high-speed train bosses

Costly delays

Don’t blame me...

Mussolini may have a questionable legacy but the former dictator is said to have solved one of Italy’s most chronic problems: he got the trains to run on time.

How? According to his biographer Denis Mack Smith, he told his Fascist black-shirts to shoot drivers if they failed to keep to schedule.

A draconian measure, indeed. But Party officials in China may be thinking creatively about how they can solve an embarrassing locomotive problem of their own: a series of delays on the Beijing to Shanghai high-speed rail line.

The flagship service was supposed to highlight China’s engineering prowess. But since opening, it has done anything but.

The railway was already under fire for its price tag ($34 billion), as well as disappointment that it wouldn’t be run as fast as officials had first promised (topping off at 300km/h instead of 350 km/h).

Those concerns were overlooked when the line was launched on the first of July – to coincide with the 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party. But the halo around the project soon started to fade. During the second week, service was disrupted three times in four days, stoking criticism that the project had been rushed to completion ahead of the big day.

The first incident was blamed on mother nature: heavy rains damaged electric cables, causing a power outage and delaying 19 trains in Shandong for several hours (and left them without air conditioning the entire time).

Railway officials barely had time to apologise to passengers before the next incident was being reported. This time the problems appeared to be man-made. A faulty instrument (the pantograph, for the engineers in WiC’s readership) led to a power loss on one train, then causing 29 more trains to be delayed.

“No one explained, we waited for two hours,” one exasperated passenger told Xinhua.

Another malfunction last Wednesday meant passengers weredisembarked and switched to other trains, contributing to a final tally of only 85% of trips being completed on time over the first two weeks.

Performances like that would require Japanese railway men to reach for their harakiri swords. But there were also signs of a little satisfaction from the Japanese, with the Sankei Shimbum going with the headline: “China’s pirated Shinkansen (bullet train) was soon out of order.” For why the Japanese might feel such vindication, see WiC114.

Xinhua did its best to put a more positive spin on events. “It’s a ‘newborn’, we should be more patient,” it pleaded, before even going on to argue that the power outages proved the safe operation of the system. Railway Ministry spokesman Wang Yongping concurred: “With these problems exposed and solved, China’s [HSR] will become better.”

The public was less impressed. “Many micro-bloggers said they would not choose high-speed trains over flying] after this incident,” exexplained China Daily. “Punctuality and the ability to operate regardless of the weather were meant to be its advantages.”

Reportedly, local airlines signalled their own disdain by hiking ticket prices back up to pre-opening levels (so Rmb900 a ticket now to fly from Beijing to Shanghai instead of Rmb400).

The Ministry’s case wasn’t helped by news that corners may have been cut at ancillary projects too.

Travellers at the Nanjing South Station – a major hub for the high-speed line – had to trudge through ankle-deep water last week after heavy rain turned it into a muddy bog.

‘Asia’s largest train station’ (according to the Yangtze Evening Post) had its brand new granite floor torn out just days after it was signed-off as ready’. The reason was a familiar one. “It was just thrown down too quickly to make it ready in time for the opening ceremony [on July 1],” a construction worker told the South China Morning Post.

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