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China's Rail System Needs Reform

By Wen Zhao
July 24
Economic Observer Online

Translated by Zhang Wen

Original article: [Chinese]

The Ministry of Railways decided on July 24 to dismiss senior officials involved in the recent Wenzhou train crash, including Long Jing, director of the Shanghai Railway Bureau, Li Jia, Party Secretary of the Bureau, and the Bureau’s vice director, He Shengli, who was in charge of engineering and electric affairs.

This shows that although the search and rescue work is still underway and we are trying every effort to save more lives, we have already started holding people to account for the accident. We hope it marks the beginning of establishing responsibility – responsibility for the 39 deaths and 192 injuries – and the people’s railway should answer to the people with transparency. Butwhat we have done hitherto is far from enough.

The bullet train crash can be blamed on various technical issues-- the Ministry of Railways spokesman has said it was due to the lightning which caused the equipment failure – but explanations like this don’t convince the general public. The investigation continues, and we look forward to more convincing explanations from the ministry.

One thing is for sure, if the railway hadn’t attempted its Great Leap to high speed lines, we might not have the frequent breakdowns and accidents, and we might have avoided the crash that which claimed so many lives on Saturday. This can be regarded as the legacy of former railway minister Liu Zhijun. It was during his eight-year tenure that China constructed a large number of high-speed lines and recorded the highest speed of construction. But if we assign all the blame to Liu, whose corruption has already been exposed, then we might overlook the real problems with China’s railway construction.

We have to examine the motivations for China’s rapid construction of high speed lines. The answer lies in China’s current railway management and operation system. Although this area of state monopolies had its historical justification, more than thirty years after China began its market-oriented reform, the railway industry remains one of the few “fortresses” of the planned economy.

Recently, in several reviews of government institutions, public proposals for the railway system suggested increasing competition and separating government and businesses. However, the Ministry of Railways hasn’t changed, it still stands in judgment of itself – planning new projects as well as inspecting them. It is just like an independent kingdom with its own courts. The development of the railways has already lagged behind highways and airlines, and can’t meet the needs and travellers and rising economic centers, but the railway structure still remained unified. Although the separation of public security bodies, investigative teams and people's courts within the railway system is underway and the delegation of powers to local railway departments has been put on the agenda, there has been no radical change in the system.

Currently, all the decisions are made within a closed system with no external monitoring; the ministry controls the whole country’s railway planning and development; corruption frequently arises when awarding contracts and tax payers have paid a huge amount for the public debt taken on for the construction of high speed railways. Railway officials promised safety on high speed railways, but didn’t explain to the general public how they would keep this promise. Knowing how the railway’s Great Leap was achieved, who can say that the high speed network is safe? We can see that unofficial opinions have been blocked and silence was imposed on dissenting experts. That is why tragedies are unavoidable on the railway that claims to put safety first.

Under this closed and self-administrated system, even if there had been no Giant Leap Forward in high-speed railway development, there would have been a Great Leap Forward in another form; even if there has been no corruption in the tendering process, there would have been corruption in other areas. Once a problem occurs in this system, it would be like a derailed train, no one can stop it. Although every accident has its specific causes, one thing is undeniable - the system provides opportunities for mistakes, whether they are deliberate or not. After mistakes have been made, it’s hardly possible to correct them from within the system.

We hope the loss of 39 lives can ignite a thorough investigation of China’s railway system. The details should be made public. We owe this to those who have died.

A thorough safety check should also be conducted on the bullet and high-speed trains in operation. We know to know why the 45-day national safety check in February failed to find the hidden risk of accidents and we want to be sure that the ongoing checks on the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed railway can guarantee its safety.

If we can’t use cutting edge technology safely, then we shouldn’t use it at all.

We hope we can use this opportunity for deep and profound reflection on the decision-making process within China’s high-speed railway program as well as a complete report to the National People's Congress. We hope we can come up with a plan for the future reform of China’s railway.

If 39 deaths and 192 injuries cannot even make this happen, if this accident is ultimately attributed to the natural disaster of lightning, unavoidable technical faults or several low-level officials, and discussion of the bullet trains falls silent, then how, in the name of the people, can we can we put out our confidence in China’s railway?


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