Sat, Aug 13, 2011 - Page 1 News List

China recalls bullet trains in another blow to rail system

Reuters, SHANGHAI and BEIJING

China’s second-biggest train maker will recall 54 bullet trains used on the new showcase Beijing-Shanghai line for safety reasons, the firm said yesterday, dealing a fresh blow to the nation’s scandal-plagued rail system.

The recall of the trains by China CNR Corp Ltd comes three weeks after 40 people were killed in a high-speed rail crash which triggered public fury, unusually bold media coverage and a freeze on approvals for new railway projects.

China’s high-speed rail drive was until recently held up by senior government officials as a trophy of the nation’s technological prowess. Now it has become a political albatross, drawing scorn from many citizens long frustrated with the hulking railways ministry.

China’s fast-growing microblog Web sites have served to amplify that public anger and the recall drew more catcalls on Sina’s popular Weibo site.

“Wasn’t this locomotive the most advanced type and put into use only after many tests? So how come the problems were discovered after they were put into operation? What a miracle,” wrote one Weibo user.

“Can we also recall the Ministry of Railways?” another asked.

Officials blamed last month’s crash first on a lightning strike and then on faulty signals technology, but yesterday Chinese media quoted a senior investigator as saying the crash also exposed management failings and could have been avoided.

“There were serious flaws in the system design that led to an equipment failure,” said Chinese State Administration of Work Safety Minister Luo Lin (駱琳), the man leading the probe.

“At the same time, this exposed problems in emergency response and safety management after the failure occurred,” the Beijing Times cited Luo as saying. “This was a major accident involving culpability that could have been totally avoided.”

However, China cannot afford to curtail train investment in the longer-term, Luo said.

“After all, China’s railway system can’t go back to the old days of shabby green cars,” he said.

The recall and a decision to cut the top speeds of bullet trains nonetheless reflected a rethink by government leaders jolted into considering the risks of high-speed rail growth, said Zhao Jian (趙堅), an expert on rail at Beijing Jiaotong University who has long criticized the bullet train expansion.

China has been working for years to develop a high-speed rail network to rival Japan’s famed bullet trains and last year investment in the sector hit 749.5 billion yuan (US$117 billion).

Even before last month’s crash and the resulting furor, China’s railways sector was under a cloud. Former Chinese minister of railways Liu Zhijun (劉志軍) was dismissed in February over corruption charges.

Passengers waiting to board bullet trains from Beijing to Shanghai said they were not worried by news of the recall.

“The risk of an accident is definitely greater on these fast trains, but flying isn’t any safer,” said Zhang Kelong, a building materials salesman, who said he was taking the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed service for the first time.

The government is stepping up safety demands, he noted.

“So the likelihood of another accident happening is small,” he said. “Let’s just say I would have to be very unlucky for that to happen.”

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