Talking Point

Troubled track record?

Latest subway crash deepens debate on rail industry’s health

Passengers are evacuated near the Yu Yuan Garden station in Shanghai

Back in WiC23, we reported that the plans for Beijing’s subway were being outlined in an unapologetically bullish manner.

”Those who know nothing, fear nothing,” a senior boss for the city’s subway told the Beijing Times.

It sounded like a bold sound bite for a rail industry in rapid growth mode – both above and below ground. But it has started to look more like a reckless one following the Wenzhou bullet train disaster in July (see WiC117 for a fuller account of the accident and its aftermath).

And another railway crash last Tuesday, this time on Shanghai’s subway, means that the debate is now widening, not only to question the pace of the industry’s spread, but also some of the domestic technology being used in railway operations.

What’s the background on the latest crash?

Another serious accident, this time on Shanghai’s Metro Line 10, which connects downtown Shanghai, the city’s Hongqiao airport and various universities and tourist attractions.

In the crash, one train was rear-ended by another after an automated signal system failed, forcing controllers to rely on manual operation by telephone.

The fallback procedures also seem to have failed, with the collision injuring 271, some seriously.

Fortunately, no deaths have been reported.

Who is to blame this time?

Initially, the subway operator Shanghai Shentong Metro Group blamed faulty signalling, before switching position to cite power failure instead.

The company’s response to the accident was less than sure-footed, first posting an online apology, and then replacing it quickly with another message toning down the original statement but promising to “definitely do better” in future.

This then disappeared too, to be replaced by a message more similar to the original.

None of it was enough to calm netizens on the accident, although the circulation of a 2005 article from Xinhua – “Shanghai Will Never Have a Subway Accident” – did little to improve the mood.

At least Shanghai Metro tried to respond to public disquiet. Signal system provider CASCO seems to have gone for the alternate approach, cold-shouldering the media that turned up at its offices. Looking through the glass doors at the CASCO offices, reporters could see company officials working inside. But despite persistent ringing of the door buzzer, they were completely ignored.

So CASCO is getting some of the blame?

The company’s record on subway signalling isn’t unblemished. According to the Shanghai Daily, a circuit glitch led to two trains on Line 1 colliding in December 2009, but with no casualties. In another incident in July last year, a train took the wrong track at a Y-shaped intersection on Line 10, before reversing back into the previous station.

Yu Guangyao, chairman of Shanghai Metro, says he then got tough with his equipment supplier. “CASCO promised to us that such signal problems would not happen again,” Yu told reporters.

Also caught in the crossfire is French conglomerate Alstom, partner with China Railway Signal and Communication Corporation (CSRC) in the CASCO joint venture since 1986.

Alstom’s president in China, Domininique Pouliquen, has already said that reports also linking it to the Wenzhou crash were “rubbish”. The company provides traffic control software to station managers, and not the type of signal equipment that failed on the Shanghai-to-Beijing bullet line, Pouliquen insists.

But despite this, he admits that Alstom’s image “has been very much tarnished” by the disaster. Further speculation about CASCO’s role in the Shanghai subway accident will not be helping to clear up the confusion.

”We have…nothing to do with it,” Pouliquen told the Wall Street Journal, exasperatedly.

Focus first on human failure, rather than system breakdown?

That seems to be an early preference in the investigation.

Similarly, although a leak of the preliminary findings on the Wenzhou crash suggested improperly designed signal equipment (which failed after a series of lightning strikes), it also inferred that human error and poor management played a part.

Still, signals equipment supplied by Beijing National Railway Research and Design Institute – an adjunct of the Ministry of Railways – looks like taking much of the blame for those fatalities. The Institute is also the only entity so far to issue a statement of “sorrow” after the Wenzhou crash, saying it would now “shoulder our responsibility”.

There are parallels with the Shanghai crash, where the focus now seems to have moved to human error, rather than faulty system design. Perhaps that is just as well, as media was soon pointing out that CASCO is supplier to a series of subway projects in Shanghai and Beijing, as well as for train networks in Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Changchun, Tianjin and Dalian.

After the initial power failure, metro operators chose to run the line “via phone by subway staff rather than by electric signals”, Xinhua reported. Less than an hour later, the two trains ran into one another.

That has led some newspapers to ask questions about back-up power. Others have queried why stronger fallback systems were not in place. In one comment an airline manager at China Eastern told Bloomberg: “It seems that our manual ability – minus technology – is quite low.”

A case of too far, too fast?

Wang Mengshu, an academic at the Chinese Academy of Engineering, was typical in pointing out that China’s subway construction has advanced at breakneck speed.

By 2009 China had laid around 940km of subway lines – almost all built in just a decade (the plan is to triple this to 3,000km by 2015). The rapid pace of construction meant less time for planning and testing, Wang told the China Daily, especially when city governments clamour to have their own subway systems built as quickly as possible.

The State Council has veto rights on subway construction, only allowing it in cities meeting thresholds in tax revenue, population, local GDP and traffic flow. But that still means that about 50 cities currently qualify, and half are already “involved in the metro feast” says Time Weekly.

And the subway design angle?

Less mentioned in the domestic media is the issue of reverse engineering, or localisation, in much of the technology going into China’s new railway infrastructure.

Here the Wall Street Journal goes back to the Wenzhou crash, to look at Beijing-based Hollysys, one of a handful of companies granted the right to sell signal systems to the national railway system.

Hollysys relies on components from Hitachi for some of the systems that it now develops under its own label, says the newspaper.

But the problem is that some components sold by the Japanese firm are of deliberate “black box” design, intended to make further reverse engineering efforts more difficult.

“It’s a mystery how a company like Hollysys could integrate our equipment into a broader safety-signalling system without intimate knowledge of our know-how,” a Hitachi executive told the newspaper.

Japanese officials also warned of safety concerns before the Shanghai-Beijing high-speed link opened, following statements from Chinese sources that re-engineered technology would allow for travel at faster speeds than high-speed lines elsewhere.

After the Wenzhou crash, the Japanese did their best to be measured in response to the tragedy, although the Nikkei newspaper broke ranks, speculating that one reason for the failure of safety systems was that Chinese technology had been “cobbled together” from various foreign patents.

Could it be a factor in Shanghai?

No one is suggesting it so directly this time. But CASCO initially relied on imported technology (presumably much of it from Alstom) after winning its first contract for the Shanghai underground in 1994, reports Time Weekly. Within three years, it had begun to develop its own localised products and by 2003 it was installing an “independently developed” system.

Time Weekly also says that one company has been key to much of the localisation effort in signals research and design, and it turns out to be the same Beijing National Railway Research and Design Institute that apologised in the aftermath of the Wenzhou disaster.

Is the industry in too much of a rush to localise, asked 21CN Business Herald, resulting in homemade products reliant on foreign components, but with potential problems of system compatibility?

Alstom’s Pouliquen seemed to imply a need for a rethink in further comments to the Wall Street Journal.

“I think it’s all about absorption and fully mastering the whole technology that has been acquired over the last 10 years,” he suggested.

Are passengers being put off?

Not last weekend, with the railways ministry reporting its busiest period ever at the start of the national holiday.

Certainly, there is little choice but to take the train for many residents in congested cities, where the growing suburban sprawl means longer trips for many commuters.

That has led to a sense of resignation among passengers, with advice being shared on how best to survive subway crashes in future.

Try to get into middle carriages, which are more likely to be protected in the event of a shunt, one commuter told the South China Morning Post.

“I firmly grab a handrail with both hands and stand in a rigid pose so that, regardless of whether a crash comes from ahead or the rear, I am somewhat prepared,” she advised.

Collateral damage for China Inc, too?

There is also the bigger picture, in which news of more railway crashes at home will chip away at Chinese aspirations to become a major provider of engineering services overseas.

Tension between the two narratives was neatly encapsulated on China Daily’s front page two days after the Shanghai accident.

To its credit, the newspaper didn’t ignore the wider questions provoked by the subway smash, running a smaller article with the headline “Accidents a red signal for metro expansion”.

But much more prominent was the main story headlined “All systems go for key space launch”, which went on to talk excitedly about the imminent launch of the Heavenly Palace space module (see page 8).

If editors were embarrassed by the clash of headlines, they kept it to themselves.

But the railway accidents must be leading to a few red faces. Just three months ago, the opening of the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed line was timed to coincide with the Communist Party’s 90th anniversary celebrations. The backdrop was a drum roll of data on advancing track lengths and accelerating train speeds.

Now, the fear must be that news of more accidents starts to tarnish the Chinese reputation in other major projects, like their design of a civilian aircraft to compete with Boeing and Airbus (see WiC31), or the spread of reverse-engineered nuclear technology (see WiC102).

Hollysys, the railway systems provider, is also a leading player in self-developed automation controls for Chinese nuclear reactors.

And while Shanghai’s subway commuters may have little alternative in their choice of transport, overseas customers for Chinese trains and track will be more mindful of their options, especially when foreign competitors will be doing their utmost to keep the Chinese out of their domestic markets.

In the meantime, chastened rail officials must be hoping that enough lessons have been learned from the these two crashes to avoid another…


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