Eight months pregnant with her first child, 29-year-old Yang Zengdong debated traveling in August from Shanghai to her hometown of Hunan to have her baby. It wasn’t an easy decision; after a July 23 high-speed rail crash near Wenzhou killed 40 people and injured at least 192, Yang’s confidence in China’s transportation safety was severely shaken.
“Of course I am worried to take my child on the train back to Hunan to see my family. But maybe I will still choose the train, because neither train nor air travel is safe in China. There is no truly safe method of travel,” Yang said. “Although there hasn’t been a major aircraft accident recently, I sometimes worry that a similarly devastating accident will happen to a Chinese airline sooner or later.”
Yang is, of course, not alone in her concern. Reports of recurrent stoppages on the newly-opened Shanghai-Beijing high-speed line, the crown-jewel of the country’s rail system, already had passengers frustrated. But after a crash sent four train cars plummeting off a 50-foot bridge in July, China’s railway planners were plunged into a much deeper crisis.
In the days after the accident, Jiefang Daily reported that usually full trains on the Shanghai-Wenzhou route were half-empty. Other media reports documented how some passengers were calling their families to tell them their train and carriage numbers, or even taking photos of their tickets to send to relatives.
Despite reassurances from Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao of a “transparent” investigation, the government ordered a media blackout about the train wreck soon after the accident. This had some citizens worrying that a cover-up was afoot.
Zhao Quanjing, a 26-year-old teacher in Shanghai, booked a flight home to Jilin for October instead of taking the train as usual. She was already considering switching to air travel because of the train’s longer transport times. After the Wenzhou accident, her distrust in China’s railway safety solidified her decision.
“I don’t believe that the government’s investigation after the Wenzhou accident will reveal the true cause of the crash,” said Zhao. “I think when they immediately buried the train carriages, they also buried the facts. So I do not believe in the truth of this investigation.”
For many in China, the train wreck has underscored fears about China’s breakneck expansion of its rail line length to 13,000 kilometers this year and 16,000 km by 2020. It has also exposed cracks in the Ministry of Railways’ organizational structure – which not only built China’s railways, but is responsible for overseeing their safety.
Chan Kam Wing, a geography professor at the University of Washington, had expressed his concerns well ahead of the crash in a opinion piece China-US Focus published in March. “These state-of-the-art bullet trains have become an icon of China’s Great Leap Forward to superpower status in the 21st century,” Chan wrote, while also urging caution from admirers, including US President Barrack Obama. Chan argued that people were neglecting the risks posed by widespread corruption within the Railways Ministry, and that its hasty rail network expansion could lead to “potentially serious safety risks.”
Months after he wrote the commentary, even Chan was surprised by how fast these problems became apparent. “I felt [when I wrote the article] that the rail project was like the Great Leap Forward, and as we all know, the Great Leap Forward ended in disaster,” Chan said.
“In order to regain people’s confidence, we’ll have to see how the Ministry of Railways deals with the aftermath, and so far it hasn’t been very good.”
The Railways Ministry released a statement in August saying that it will revamp timetables and reduce speeds on some lines. Trains on the Beijing-Tianjin and Shanghai-Hangzhou routes will be reduced by 50 kilometers an hour to 300 km/h. Ticket prices will be reduced by an average of 5%. China CNR Corp, one of the nation’s two leading train manufacturers, also announced in August it would recall 54 bullet trains used on the new Beijing-Shanghai high-speed line for safety reasons.
These actions – as well as plans to suspend new rail project approvals and launch safety checks on existing equipment – demonstrate China’s intentions to regain public confidence. But reforms in the Railways Ministry will be the real key. Analysts argue that the ministry’s dual grip on regulating and operating China’s trains should be divided, to improve safety standards and financial transparency.
After all, the bureaucracy’s problems are severe. Sheng Guangzu, who became railways minister in February after his predecessor was sacked during a bribery investigation, faces public outrage over the accident and ministry relationships with suppliers. He is also grappling with ministry debts totaling US$326 billion, or about 5% of GDP.
“If the Chinese government really wants to demonstrate they are taking this seriously … that gigantic empire needs to be rationalized in many ways,” Chan said. “There are calls for turning this monopoly into a much more accountable bureaucracy.”
Travelers like Yang of Hunan agree that China needs to do more to emphasize the importance of people’s safety over speed.
“Now, the railway service is not [making decisions] for the people, they are for themselves and their own bureaucratic importance,” Yang said. “I think the government has placed too much emphasis on prestigious ‘face’ projects. They have been pursuing things that are too fast, too large, too unreal.”