Rail & Infrastructure

Hitting the buffers

Senior bosses implicated in final crash report

Hitting the buffers

CSR’s chairman: Zhao Xiaogang

On October 2, 1872 one of the world’s best-known travellers boarded a train at Charing Cross station at 8.45pm, and reached Paris the next morning at 7.20. Phileas Fogg had begun his attempt to go round the world in eighty days.

Of course, that journey took place in a Jules Verne novel (although today’s Eurostar can occasionally travel at a similar pace if the weather takes a turn for the worst). But the author Jules Verne would no doubt have been interested to hear that a new Chinese train could cover a similar distance in less than an hour.

Last week China South Locomotive and Rolling Stock (CSR) announced it had built a train capable of cruising at speeds in excess of 500km/h (the train route between London and Paris is 495km). According to the National Business Daily the new ‘test’ train has a distinctive design, with a sharp wedge-shape structure that looks “like a sword out of its scabbard”.

CSR’s chairman, Zhao Xiaogang also insists that the new bullet train was developed “without any foreign input”. That’s a major claim: earlier generations of high-speed trains were developed in partnership with global manufacturers such as Kawasaki Heavy Industries (see WiC114).

As patriotic as all this sounds on paper, the breakthrough has not roused much enthusiasm from Chinese citizens. They remain deeply sceptical about the country’s expensive foray into high-speed rail thanks to the train crash that occurred outside Wenzhou in late July in which 40 died (see WiC117).

The accident unleashed public venom. Critics were quick to note that China may have built four times as much high-speed track as Japan but that there had been no deaths on the Japanese shinkansen in almost half a century.

Further stoking anger: a subway train crash in Shanghai in October, injuring 271. By this point, trust in local train technologies (as well as domestic rail management) had reached an all-time low.

So when news of the super-fast new train was announced, many netizens were quick to advise against using it. Most wanted safer, rather than faster, travel. One blogger Yu Xiaodou wrote on his weibo: “Anyone who is anxious to be reincarnated can take this bullet train.”

In fact, high-speed rail was already back in the headlines, after the release of the official verdict on the causes of July’s crash in Wenzhou. The 50-page report found that design flaws in control equipment – including a “serious” software bug – and lax management were responsible, reports the BBC. The investigation also named 54 individuals whom it said bore responsibility, including the disgraced former rail minister Liu Zhijun.

Xinhua noted that the producer of the rail signalling equipment, China Railway Signalling Equipment and Communication Corp (CRSC) was “mainly responsible” for the crash. Its former chairman, Ma Cheng was another on the personnel black list. The government has promised they will all be punished.

But netizens complained the report simply blamed those already in custody. Observed too the Wall Street Journal: “The report lacks technical and systemic details that could shed more light on how the accident happened. It doesn’t say specifically how a key railway signalling device could be knocked out by lightning, nor what lines of software code resulted in bungled messages being transmitted to train pilots. The report also fails to say whether the entire railway system is riddled with problems like those that caused July’s accident, though it discusses how speedy building of the system made it unsafe.”

That said, the Journal added the report was “extraordinary” by the standards of Chinese government disclosures, breaking new ground by including a second-by-second reconstruction of events.

Meanwhile, CSR’s chief engineer played down safety fears about the new 500km/h train. Liang Jianying told media it was being used purely for “scientific research” and there were no immediate plans to put it into commercial use.

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