After Wenzhou Train Wreck, China to Implement Universal Slowdown on High Speed Trains

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By Vivian Ni

Aug. 11 – China’s Ministry of Railways (MoR) has determined to do something practical this time in the face of lingering public rage against the fatal train collision in Wenzhou on July 23. At a meeting chaired by Premier Wen Jiabao yesterday, central government departments called for a thorough security check on all high-speed railway (HSR) lines, and ordered newly-built HSR lines to run at lower speeds.

Speed cut
Railways Minister Sheng Guangzu, who had been promoting a slowdown since he was appointed in February, told Xinhua News Agency yesterday that high speed trains with a designed top speed of 350 kilometers per hour will operate at a reduced speed of 300 kilometers per hour, and those with a top speed of 250 kilometers per hour will slow down to 200 kilometers per hour. Lines whose speed has already been lifted to 200 kilometers per hour will operate at 160 kilometers per hour.

Train schedules across China will be adjusted as the MoR introduces the new speeds and ticket prices will also be lowered with the trains slowed down, Sheng added. The latest news from the Shanghai Railway Bureau says the Shanghai train stations will suspend ticket sales for all the G-trains (high-speed trains) and D-trains (bullet trains) departing from Shanghai on or after August 15 until new train schedules are issued.

The MoR’s announcement marks the first time China has reduced speeds on active railway routes since 1997, when the country first started its ambitious campaign to speed up national railway lines. China now boasts the world’s longest bullet train rail track at 8,358 kilometers, which operates at speeds of over 200 kilometers per hour.

Only a few months ago, the new Beijing-Shanghai HSR line was marketed as the fastest long-haul railway line in the world that could travel at up to 380 kilometers per hour and shorten the travel time between the two destinations to four hours. However, after its opening at the end of June, the fastest trains on the line are only running at speeds of around 300 kilometers per hour and passengers taking the line will spend around 5 to 5.5 hours on the whole journey if there are no major delays. Now, with the MoR’s new announcement regarding national speed cuts, it is almost certain that the travel time between the two cities will become even longer.

Safety scrutiny
A statement issued by the State Administration of Work Safety after the official meeting yesterday said an inspection of equipment quality, operation safety and design, and quality of lines will be conducted immediately. While the MoR has blamed a signaling system with “serious design flaws” on the line as the main culprit of the Wenzhou train crash, it said it has just completed a new round of thorough checks and tests on all the signaling equipment with the same model to ensure the system’s reliability.

In addition, the government will reevaluate the safety systems of the new rail projects that have been approved, but have not yet commenced construction, and will likely not offer approvals to any new projects for the time being.

A less hasty China?
“Haste does not bring success” has become a saying widely cited by media commentaries after July 23’s train wreck. Although a “speedy China” – featuring a higher than 9 percent annual GDP growth rate, the world’s fastest trains, and rapidly-expanding urban construction – has earned a lot of “face” for many Chinese people, the recent train accident (together with many other incidents) has also incurred large-scale public questioning over the speed of China’s development. Not only do people wonder if the MoR has prioritized its spending over train quality control during the rapid HSR expansion, but they also yearn to know if their food quality will soar with the GDP, and whether or not building quality will improve as fast as real estate development in the country’s metropolises.

A recent Weibo (the Chinese Twitter) comment on the train slowdown says it is a good thing that the country can now wait for its people to catch up.

The Chinese government has also come to realize the emerging problems such as efficiency and quality in its rapid economic growth. In Premier Wen’s Government Work Report delivered in March this year, the GDP growth goal in the next five years has been moderately reduced to 7 percent from 8 percent, revealing the government’s determination to place more focus on improvement in distribution systems and industrial structure, rather than the quantity of economic output.

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