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The Energy Corridor's Risky Loads
Summary: When a bus in Shaanxi rear-ended a chemical tanker and killed 36 people, it highlighted the transportation problems associated with a major influx of migrant workers and energy resources in recent years. Because of inadequate railways, passengers and dangerous chemicals are forced to share overcrowded roads. It makes accidents like this inevitable.


By Zhang Yanlong (张延龙), Wang Jinghuai (王井怀). Sun Li (孙黎)
Issue 584, September 3, 2012
News, cover
Translated by Tang Xiangyang
Original article:

This is a full translation of the front page story from this week's edition of The Economic Observer, for more highlights from the EO print edition, click here.

In the middle of the night on Aug 26, a double-decker passenger bus heading from Hohhot to Xi'an rear-ended a chemical tanker and burst into flames. As most of the passengers were asleep when the bus slammed into the truck, only three managed to escape with their lives, 36 others weren't so lucky.

The expressway that connects Baotao in the northern autonomous region of Inner Mongolia with Maoming in the southern coastal province of Guangdong passes through Yan'an in Shanxi Province. It's known as the "energy corridor" for Shaanxi Province and a "labor corridor" for western China.

Every year hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from Sichuan Province and Henan Province travel along the road on their way to Shaanxi and Inner Mongolia.

At the same time, millions of tons of energy resources are also transported along the same stretch of road.

The economic prosperity of the resource-rich and labor-hungry region has begun to push the limits of how much traffic the expressway can handle.

The drivers of the two vehicles involved in this accident indeed made mistakes, but when considering the broader factors associated with the expressway, the accident was almost inevitable.

The Passengers

It took Wang Xianze (王咸泽), one of the passengers, four minutes to crawl out of the bus. The 50-year-old man from Chongqing had been working at a construction site in Hohhot.

Over the past ten years, Inner Mongolia has led the country in terms of regional economic growth rates, along with a booming economic growth, construction sites in the autonomous regions also pay the highest wages in the country. Following the money, many migrant workers from Sichuan and Chongqing have been attracted to seek work in the region.

The problem is that it's not easy for Wang Xianze to travel back home. It takes 30 hours by train from Hohhot to Chongqing and migrant workers like him can't afford to buy a sleeper ticket.

Most will choose to take a long-distance sleeper bus instead. They'll transfer in Xi'an, taking a total of three days to reach home, but at least they can lie comfortably during their journey.

The expressway connecting Baotao and Maoming may be one of the busiest in the country since it connects the cities of Yulin, Shenmu and Ordos - key points along China's energy and labor corridors.

Throughout the year, heavy trucks carrying coal, oil, methanol, natural gas and polyvinylchloride (PVC) travel up and down the expressway.

The wealth of resources in the region has helped to stimulate the local economies, which in turn have attracted a huge number of migrant workers – which increases the number of crowded buses that run the same route.

The Crash

As Wang Xianze lay sleeping in the bus, a tanker carrying 35 tons of methanol was driving from Yanzhou Coal Mining Corporation's Yulin Energy and Chemical Company (兖州煤业榆林能化有限公司) in Shandong Province. The company runs China's largest coal-to-methanol conversion project.

The bus crashed into the back of the tanker, soaking itself in methanol. It burned up in less than 10 minutes. The bus was completely closed up, making it impossible for most passengers to escape.  

The Road

The investigation team appointed by the State Council concluded it was an "accident caused by illegal driving." But the first response from locals was to express their concerns about the dangerous expressway.

Cao Jing (曹靖), deputy general manager of Ziwei Property (紫薇地产) in Xi'an, posted a message to his Weibo account advising friends to avoid buses.

During the 11th Five-Year Plan period of 2006 to 2011, the average annual GDP growth rate of Shaanxi Province was 14.8 percent - one of the highest in the country. During that period, the chemical energy industry replaced equipment manufacturing to become the biggest driver of the local economy. The GDP growth rate of Yulin soared as high as 30 percent a year.

Currently, Shaanxi produces 400 million tons of coal every year, of which the area around Yulin provides 280 million tons.

Over 200 million tons of that raw coal and related products like methanol are then transported to eastern and southern parts of the country.  

Tao Guangyuan (陶光远), European energy management expert and director of the Sino-German Renewable Energy Cooperation Center, said that dangerous substances like methanol had to be shipped by road because of inadequate railway capacity. The safety index of road transportation is only 1/20 that of rail transportation though. "Those vehicles are bombs running on the roads," he said. "They're scary!"

The Shaanxi Daily quoted Wang Kening (王克宁), head of the transportation bureau of Yulin City, as saying, "The coal produced in Yulin has to meet the power generation demand of Shandong, Hebei, Liaoning, Henan and Jiangsu provinces. The designated capacity of the expressway lags far behind the actual vehicle flow. That's the reason for overcrowding on these major coal-shipping routes. There are just too many vehicles."

In Yulin, a road originally designed to accommodate 4,500 vehicles each day, had 18,000 vehicles running along it daily in 2010, with a peak of 22,000.

At the end of 2010, the rail line connecting Baotao and Xi'an was completed. It was designed to ship coal but the 55 million ton annual capacity is far less then what is required. So road transportation remains a necessity.


"The accident tells us that there are too many vehicles and the road design is lagging far behind. It's obvious," said Cao Jingsheng (曹清生), a mid-level official with the traffic police in Yan'an and supervisor of the team's major accident branch.

He sat smoking with bloodshot eyes as he told the EO that he often has multiple day stretches without any sleep because of all the accidents in recent years.

In spite of all the doubt over the capacity of the expressway, an unnamed source from the Shaanxi Gaosu Group (陕西高速集团) disagreed.

"All the design standards were approved by relevant government agencies," he said. "Generally speaking, it should meet demand for ten more years. The Yanjing Expressway [which is run by his company] has only been in use for six years.

"Many people feel it's a little bit crowded," he continued. "They question why we didn't make it wider. Six lanes would be better, but we have to think about the cost. It's very difficult to build a road in mountainous areas. The land it occupies is also very precious."

In fact, in 2000, when the expressway was being designed, Yulin was one of the poorest regions in Shaanxi Province.

It's doubtful that the designers could have foreseen the city's rapid growth and the huge vehicle flow the prosperity would bring about. In 2003, when one portion of the expressway was completed, many local residents rode bicycles on it since few had cars.

The development of the coal, oil and gas industries in northern Shaanxi didn't really take off until 2005.

Yang Xiaoguang (杨晓光), director of the transportation engineering faculty under Jiaotong University, said, "The planning of an expressway is complicated. Generally speaking, the demand can never be met."

Chen Yanyan (陈艳艳), professor with the transportation research center under the Beijing University of Technology, said that expressway design predicts future traffic flow based on the current economic situation. It is related to GDP, but factors such as population and land availability are also considered.

As for the problem of transportation construction being unable to meet increasing demand, she said, "The past solution was widening the road, raising its grade and adding lanes. But it can never match economic development. It lies more with managing the demand and striking a balance."



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