Complaints about the railway system are common among Chinese. It is the most widely used form of long-distance transport, especially for Chinese who cannot afford to fly. However, buying a ticket is difficult, and food, drink and other services on trains are poor — problems often attributed to corruption.
“Corruption? Of course there is in the railway bureau. There’s that Boss Railway,” 32-year-old businessman Chang Shangxi said as he waited for a high-speed train in Shanghai last week.
“I am sure corruption causes corners to be cut and work to be faked as the companies have to make the money back that they spent on corruption,” he added.
The ministry’s ability to throw money around to get things done and preserve its power ultimately contributed to its downfall.
Former Chinese minister of railways Liu Zhijun (劉志軍), the bullet train network’s top promoter, was ousted two years ago amid accusations that he took massive bribes and steered contracts, some of them associated with the high-speed rail. Among his rumored misdeeds: having 18 mistresses.
Though he awaits trial, his fate — and perhaps the ministry’s — seemed sealed when bullet trains collided near the city of Wenzhou in July 2011, killing 40 people and injuring 177. The accident outraged the country’s growing middle class — the primary users of high-speed trains. Taking to social media sites, they questioned whether speedy development resulted in shoddy work. A government investigation cited design flaws and mismanagement.
In the aftermath, the government began taking a harder look at corruption throughout the railways and the ministry. In one case, almost all of a US$260 million railway line in the country’s northeast had to be redone because unqualified sub-contractors filled bridge foundations with rocks and sand instead of concrete.
The ministry employs 2.1 million staff and handled 1.8 billion passengers in 2011. Its subsidiary departments oversee all railway operations and its companies are involved with everything from the design of railways to construction and freight transport. Beyond that, there is the Railway Art Troupe, which sings, dances and puts on acrobatic shows and operas. The China Locomotive Sports Team trains athletes in soccer, boxing, weightlifting, swimming, and track and field. Until August last year, it operated its own courts, as it did a police force until 2009. Capital spending last year was 630 billion yuan (US$100 billion) — rivaling the 670 billion yuan budgeted for the entire military — and its mounting debts have worried the government.
“Who is going to pay the debt that is expected to amount to nearly 3 trillion yuan?” Beijing Jiaotong University railway expert Zhao Jian (趙堅 ) asked.
He said the official debt figure is 2.6 trillion yuan, but he estimates it will rise as ongoing projects are completed.
The reorganization is supposed to add further restraint. The newly created China Railway Corporation will build and manage freight and passenger services, while a railways administration under the Ministry of Transport will set technical standards and enforce them.