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High-Speed Trains from China
2011/09/26

By Chen Yingying (China Features)

Yang Junling recently went to the Beijing South Railway Station with his girlfriend to catch a high-speed train to Shanghai. But, unlike any passengers on the train, Yang was armed with a motorcycle helmet and a backpack containing a flashlight and first aid supplies.

The 28- year- old graphic designer from Beijing was making his way to a memorial service being held in the city of Wenzhou, in east China’s Zhejiang Province for the victims of July’s fatal high-speed train crash.

On July 23, a high-speed train rear-ended another train that was stalled on the tracks near Wenzhou, leaving 40 people dead and 191 injured.

"I worried that the train I was taking might have an accident as well," says Yang, who brought his special equipment along in the event of a train crash. “I did so to protest the Ministry of Railways as well.”

As fate would have it, Yang’s train ended up becoming stalled near the city of Qufu of Shandong Province. The train previously experienced three power outages between July 10 and 14.

Yang recalls that the stewardesses on the train didn’t know what the problem was until nearly 10 minutes after the train stopped, at which point they informed passengers about a problem with the train’s signaling equipment, which led to the train becoming stalled on the tracks.

“I was very afraid then, because the train stopped suddenly and nobody told me why. Many passengers worried that another train would hit us from behind, just like what happened in Wenzhou,” he says.

However, like many other Chinese, Yang doesn’t have much of a choice when it comes to transportation. Compared to the 2,000-yuan (316 U.S. dollars) plane ticket that he would have to buy to make it to Wenzhou, the bullet train is much cheaper. A trip from Beijing to Wenzhou via Shanghai costs just 700 yuan.

“I have a love-hate relationship with the high-speed trains," says Yang. "They are convenient and save money and time, but I have doubts about their safety."

Yang is not the only passenger who has questioned the safety of the nation’s high-speed trains in the wake of the deadly Wenzhou crash. Rapid economic development has attracted millions of people to major cities in east China, many of whom take trains to move to their new homes.

Transportation between the country’s far-flung provinces, particularly before and after the Spring Festival holiday, has always been a challenge for the Ministry of Railways. Nearly 221 million people took trains to see their families during the Spring Festival.

“The only way to cope with the public transportation problem is to build a high-speed railway network,” says Chu Shulong, a professor with the School of Public Policy and Management at Tsinghua University.

“China, with a population of over 1.3 billion, is in a phase of development that requires a great deal of internal migration. Therefore, the high-speed railways must be constructed to meet this need,” Chu says..

He noticed that trains are usually the first choice for most Chinese because they are cheaper than airplanes and faster than conventional vehicles. The high-speed trains, he says, “work like inter-city buses, easing pressure on the country’s transportation network.”

A perspective of building a fast and convenient national railway network can be date back to Sun Yet-sen, who is regarded as the Father of the Natioion. Sun said in the 1920s that China would build a 200,000-kilometers railway system in 20 years that could reach every provincial capital city in China.

China has over 86,000km of railways at the end of 2009, ranking the third in the world in terms of length. In 2004, the central government made plans to build a 12,000-km high-speed railway network, stretching from a northeast city of Harbin to south city of Guangzhou.

Four years later, China put its first generation of CRH bullet trains into operation on a high-speed railway linking Beijing and the port city of Tianjin. In July 2011, the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed railway opened for business, sporting second-generation high-speed trains that can reach speeds of up to 350 kilometers per hour (kph).

China’s high-speed railways have developed in leaps and bounds. However, the July 23 train crash has made many people think twice about the breakneck speed at which the country’s railways have been built.

A press conference held by the Ministry of Railways a day after the crash claimed that the stalled train in Wenzhou lost power due to a lightning strike. “I have full confidence in China’s high-speed railways,” Wang Yongpin, a Ministry of Railways spokesman, said at the press conference.

Wang was later dismissed from his post on Aug. 16 following a series of comments that were considered “callous” by Chinese citizens

When asked about the miraculous discovery of a survivor in one of the train cars in Wenzhou just hours after the government declared that there were no longer any signs of life detectable in the cars, Wang replied “whether you believe it or not, I believe it anyway,” a phrase that has been repeatedly lampooned and mocked by Chinese netizens.

However, engineers and academics have also shown confidence in China’s high-speed railways.

“We all feel very confused by the accident,” says Wang Mengshu, an academician from the Chinese Academy of Engineering and a leader of the team responsible for investigating the cause of the Wenzhou crash.

"Some technologies still have room for development and may not be as perfect as those of the Germans and Japanese, but the train accident seems as though it should’ve been impossible."

Wang admitted that some of the technologies used in China’s high-speed railways, such as power supplies and signaling systems, might not be quite up to par. “I wouldn’t dare to say that our high-speed train technology is at the top of the rank, globally speaking,” he says.

Sheng Guangzu, the current railway minister said the safety is the utmost issue now after the accident.

The central government ordered safety checks on national high-speed railway network, slower running speeds and ticket price cut

In addition, the Ministry of Railways has recalled 54 bullet trains made by a domestic train manufacturer over safety concerns.

The system safety on rail projects that have received government approval but have not commenced construction will be reevaluated. The construction of new high-speed railways has also been suspended for the time being.

But, “China will unswervingly continue building the high speed railways, “ according to an executive meeting of the State Council presided over by Premier Wen Jiabao on Aug. 10.

Upon arriving in Wenzhou, Yang traveled to the site of the deadly train crash and bowed, mourning those killed in the accident. He says that he has had nightmares about the people who died on the train, even though he didn’t know any of them. Trains started running on the tracks near Wenzhou two days after the train crash occurred.

Despite the fetal accident, “we have seen the benefit of high-speed railway, which our country has spent so much money on”, says Yang. “I’ll still take high-speed trains for long distance travels in the future. “

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