Death on the High Speed Rail

UPDATE 6: Added information about the firing of three railway officials to the “Government Response” section.

UPDATE 5: Added a new report from Caixin to the “Government Response” section that offers an alternative theory for the cause of the accident.

UPDATE 4: Added translation of a survivor’s story as posted on Douban.

UPDATE 3: Added significant new information to “Government Response” section.

UPDATE 2: Section headings added, “Government Response” and “Burying the Cars” sections and content added.

UPDATE 1: Additional netizen comments and translation of propaganda directive added.

We haven’t covered it much here, but China’s high speed rail has been a contentious issue for some time now. The opening of the Beijing-Shanghai line on July 1 brought the issue to the forefront again, and it stayed there when a series of weather-related power failures caused high-profile delays and stoppages in numerous high speed trains both on and off the Beijing-Shanghai line. If you missed this, China Media Project has done an excellent job covering it, and you can read that coverage in sequential order here, here, and here, as well as many smaller notes on their newswire.

For some perspective, here are some comments CMP translated after the first incident, a power-failure that caused an hourlong delay on the Beijing-Shanghai line. These comments come from Sina Weibo, and to my recollection they could be fairly considered indicative of the general mood on Weibo at that time:

“And they call it the safest rail in the world,” said user “turan kongjian” (突然空闲).

“The facts clearly show that the talk of being the safest is just hot air,” said user “yinbao xiaoxiong” (尹抱小熊), responding to another user who wrote: “Strange! This should be investigated! We should hold those responsible to account according to the law!”

“I’m sure this is just the beginning,” said user “jackie51″.

“How tragic is fast-food-style China!” bemoaned “yiguogudu_ye.”

“Taking an airplane is a lot safer. I’d rather wait in the airport, at least it’s safe,” said user “cha’ersicao” (查尔斯曹).

In light of today’s news (and in Chinese) that a horrific high-speed rail collision in Wenzhou has killed at least 35 people and injured over 200, comments like those take on a special significance. What caused the crash last night in Wenzhou? Power failure.

Specifically, one train (D3115) was struck by lightning and lost power. Stopped on the track, it was then impacted by the train behind it (D301) on the same track. The trains were apparently not in communication with each other because despite operating on the same tracks, they were administered by two different railway bureaus. D3115 was administered by the Shanghai Railway Bureau, and D301 by the Nanchang Railway Bureau.

This might seem like a freak accident, but actually, trains being struck by lightning is not an irregular occurrence. In fact, it’s so common that a train going in the other direction was also stopped by lightning last night, according to Xinhua ((Xinhua has since updated their report to remove mention of the second train. Here’s what the article originally said: “In the opposite direction, high-speed train D3212 from southeastern city of Xiamen to Hangzhou was also stopped by lightning at about 8 p.m. Saturday. No passenger was injured, said Liu Jiwei who was on board.”)). In that case, no one was injured.

Anyway, this accident raises some very obvious questions:

  1. Weren’t the half-dozen or more power failures over the last two weeks enough to indicate that power failures caused by lightning were a serious problem on these trains? Even one failure was enough to make regular people start questioning the safety of the trains, as evidenced above. After numerous incidents, it was patently obvious even to a casual observer. So what were railway officials thinking?
  2. Why not stop the trains until the issue can be fixed? Of course, logistically speaking, this would lead to even more cramped conditions on regular trains and on planes, and probably also significant financial losses for the railway operators in question. Of course, the relevant officials had already said that they were working hard to fix the power issues that have been plaguing CHina’s high speed trains. But could stopping the trains for a few weeks to fix the issue have done as much damage to China’s high-speed rail system as this accident has done?
  3. Why are trains that operate on the same track administered by different railway bureaus? There’s no way around this one, that’s just stupid. If they had been administered by the same bureau, presumably, the train in the back would have gotten word of the stoppage ahead, and instead of a tragic, bloody accident this could have been just another power-failure delay story, and all those passengers would still be alive.

Other high speed rail lines don’t seem to have these problems. France’s TGV, for example, has not suffered a single fatality since it began operation in 1981. Japan’s Shinkansen, which has been in operation since 1964, has also never had a death with the exception of one passenger who got caught in the train’s closing doors ((If nothing else, I suppose this accident in China will once and for all dispel the rumors that China copied their high-speed train from Japan’s.)). Of course, China is a much larger country than Japan or France, but China’s rail lines are also much newer.

This is accident is a tragedy, and yet I find that my primary response to it is anger. Accidents in general are unavoidable, and they happen everywhere. But this accident was entirely avoidable, and in fact, railway authorities were given ample warning that something like this could happen over the last several weeks. Ultimately, poor design and construction mixed with bureaucratic lethargy and stupidity has murdered thirty-five people. This is an “accident” in only the loosest sense of the word. Those people would still be alive if railway authorities had taken the design and construction of the trains more seriously, or alternately, if they had listened to the warnings coming from all areas of society over the past few weeks and stopped the operation of high speed trains until the obviously serious problems could be fixed.

Netizen Comments

As you might expect, comments are pouring in on Sina Weibo, where this news is already a trending topic. Here are some thoughts from netizens on Weibo in the wake of this tragedy:

“I’m very curious to see how this accident will be reported on CCTV News this evening. Will it still be mostly reports about leaders meeting with whoever and then a few seconds on the accident, with the closer ‘the cause of the accident is still under investigation’?” (link)

“God, the Wenzhou accident…I no longer dare to ride high speed trains.” (link)

“When I saw the news of the high speed rail crash today, I had a very strange feeling. I wish the injured a speedy recovery, you must be strong, and trust the Party.” (link)

“That a big accident happened is tragic. That people are showing great love [to the victims] is laudable. But if they say this big accident was a ‘natural disaster’, that will be despicable.” (link)

“I wish the dead peace. At this moment my heart is heavy; I am disappointed and angry. I don’t know what to say. Was this just an accident, or are there safety issues with high speed rail itself? Is this the result of the massive expenditure on this face-maintaining construction? ((The implication here is that the high speed rail was built as much to “gain face” for China and the officials behind it as it was to create an actual method of transportation.)) What a great nation needs is true strength, not just a shiny facade. And now we’re playing with the people’s lives as if it were a joke? My great motherland, what is the matter with you???????” (link)

“The railway minister should be required to resign his post immediately; don’t go blaming lightning for this incident, the one who should be blamed most is you!” (link)

“All the rumors on Weibo are being deleted; Chinese government just fucking go die. Not allowing freedom of speech, distorting the truth, who would fucking believe only thirty people died? All those cars you destroyed and hid only contain thirty bodies?” (link)

The above comment is referring to rumors on Weibo and elsewhere that government officials quickly destroyed and buried several train cars that may have contained more bodies. As of this writing, those reports are unconfirmed, and I haven’t seen any direct evidence, but I have seen mention of this in several different places. Melissa Chan, the China correspondent for Al-Jazeera, is in Wenzhou and has said via Twitter that locals on the scene are also convinced the death toll is higher than what’s being reported in the press.

[The first part of this comment is translated from a Japanese comment also made on Weibo]: “Compared to people’s lives, the Chinese government cares more about its own glory, this is the quality of Chinese products. Japan’s trains were in a 9.0 earthquake and yet not a single car derailed and all safely stopped. China can only copy the outside, they can’t steal the real technology.” Tragic. (link)

“Why do they want to bury it? Just heedlessly not protecting the scene of the accident? At least take away some of the parts and make a museum for the accident as a warning to future Railway Ministries, that would be enough wouldn’t it? Burying the high-speed train is just burying the truth.” (link)

One response that we missed was translated by the China Media Project, but it bears repeating here. Keep an eye on CMP’s newswire as they will no doubt also be following this story closely.

“When a country is corrupt to the point that a single lightning strike can cause a train crash, the passing of a truck can collapse a bridge, and drinking a few bags of milk powder can cause kidney stones, none of us are exempted. China today is a train traveling through a lightning storm. None of us are spectators; all of us are passengers.” (link)

Information Control

There is a lot of anger and suspicion about this accident on Weibo, where it has already become the #1 trending topic. Who knows how long it will stay there, though. The “Ministry of Truth” (a.k.a. the Central Propaganda Department) has already sent out this notification, according to the China Digital Times (our translation, though):

Central Propaganda Department Notification: With regards to the Wenzhou train accident, all media must speedily report whatever information is released by the Railway Ministry. No media may send reporters to report [on the accident]. Carefully manage all newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do not connect it to information about the development of high speed rail [in China], do not do “re-thinking”-type reports [i.e., analytical reports]

Government Response

It is perhaps only fair to note what the government’s response to this tragedy has been. Vice premier Zhang Dejiang has rushed to the scene. Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao apparently have better things to do, but they did call for “all-out efforts to rescue passengers” and told rescue teams “to make rescue work a priority.” ((A priority? What on earth are the other priorities, then?))

The government has also suspended 23 trains in the wake of the accident. Given that there are more than 23 high speed trains that pass through Hangzhou on the way to Wenzhou alone, I can’t help but feel that the scope of this effort is too small, and of course, it’s too late. Problems were very evident before the accident, and the government should not have waited for a tragedy to act.

The government has also apparently begun to move to distance itself from the accident. This report, for example, states that the accident was not a result of the train’s high speed (China’s claims to have built a faster high speed train than Japan have attracted critics who have suggested that safety was sacrificed to attain this speed advantage). It also says that the cars involved were a “relatively mature design, and were not of Chinese original design.” Further reports have officials pointing out that this train was actually a joint venture with Japan.

Of course, suggestions that China’s high speed trains had been copied from other countries were ludicrous, offensive, and slanderous a few days ago. Now, however, it seems that same criticism may be being accepted in order to absolve China from as much of the blame as possible.

An alternative take on the cause of the crash is also taking shape. This afternoon, Caixin posted this report, an interview with academic Wang Mengshu in which he suggests that the crash may have been caused by a driver error:

Wang Mengshu said that in the course of driving, if a train in front stops, an automatic system should notify the train behind it via [radio] signal. “The system works so that within 6 km, if there are no cars, you can drive as usual. A light goes off if there is a train within 4 km, warning to slow down, and inside 2km there is a red light that says [the driver] should stop the train.”

Wang Mengshu said that currently, due to the urgent situation of high speed rails ((any thoughts on how best to translate this?)), the automatic system hasn’t yet been realized in high speed trains, so driving still relies primarily people, and a driver’s judgement is still a major factor in the driving of high speed trains

Though the article implies otherwise, it seems to me that without this automatic system in place, it’s unclear what fault the drivers would have. As the trains were administered by two different Railway Bureaus, it remains unclear whether they could even communicate directly; it is also unclear what effect the loss of power might have had on the front train’s communication systems.

Anyway, heads are already rolling in official circles. The Shanghai Railway Bureau’s three highest officials were all canned today (Sunday) and according to the China Daily, they may be under investigation as well.

Burying the Train Cars

As mentioned above, rumors are flying thick that the government is burying some of the crashed cars, possibly with bodies still inside. There’s little evidence of bodies, but at the moment, independent paike videos of digging machines that appear to be positioning the train cars for burial are available on Youku and elsewhere (thanks to @SirSteven on Twitter for this tip).

Here is a video from Youku that’s been uploaded to Youtube (just in case the original is deleted). It certainly shows machines moving the train cars around, and the title implies that they’re being buried, but that’s not immediately clear in the footage itself.

This video, also linked above, is quite similar, but at the end several locals are interviewed who also suggest the cars are being buried with bodies inside. The video is hosted on a Chinese site and thus subject to deletion; I’m trying to download a copy to preserve it and if I can, will the upload that copy here.

A Survivor’s Story

Someone claiming to be a survivor of the accident wrote this post on Douban (via @hecaitou and @niubi). Here is a partial translation:

During the trip, the train stopped, and the radio announced that it was because of the weather, and that the train would be stopped temporarily. Everyone understood, and with a few grumbles, we waited patiently. If there’s a delay, then there’s a delay, safety first! (Outside it was there was very heavy rain and lightning). After we’d waited quite some time, the train began to move again. At around 8:35 PM, there was an extremely strong shockwave, as though we’d been struck by something three times. Terror. The seat behind me was smashed crooked, but luckily the luggage was in a box or anyway didn’t swing down, otherwise the results could have been terrible. Children in the car cried loudly. At first, I just thought it was a small accident, and that after a short stop we would continue on our way. Then, all the power went out, and all that was left were the yellow emergency lights. When we discovered the floor of the car was at an angle, everyone panicked.

I was in car 6, and outside it was just black, you couldn’t see anything. They said, we’re in a mountain tunnel. In this spot in the middle of nowhere, we definitely couldn’t wait to be rescued. Some people began taking photos and posting on Weibo, others called their friends and family to explain the situation. A few passengers from the car ahead came in and yelled “Young people come help! People are injured!” Only then did I know there had been a serious accident. I listened to the guy say that the train had derailed, and in back some cars had fallen off the track. We were trapped inside, and people said we should escape ourselves, a few said we should stay put and wait for a rescue team, that leaving ourselves would not be good and that the Railway Ministry would organize a rescue team. So we sat and waited for a while.

Lightning continued and lit up the sky, allowing us to see the situation outside. The car I was in was in the mouth of a tunnel on an elevated spot of the tracks. I could see houses of a small town in the distance, and a ceaseless flow of lights from police cars. Many other people from the car had already gone out and were walking around the edge of the tunnel. The whole process was unorganized; I never saw a single train attendant or anyone from the Railway Ministry. The entire process was us to organizing ourselves.

[…After some time, I reached the exit, and with the help of an older man, was lowered down, as there was nearly a meter drop and I was wearing high heels]. There were many good-hearted people, everyone was helping others and supporting others. [We walked through several dangerous areas, including a spot with live electrical wires, and I could not help but cry. Eventually we were met by some local villagers who helped]. It was truly a very difficult road. My shoes were totally covered in mud.

Finally we got to solid ground. Under the overpass were people upon people. There were weary-eyed travelers with luggage, worried-looking locals who came to see what had happened, and bare-armed local youths who were going to rescue the injured people. I had survived a disaster.

[I stopped in a local supermarket and met with many other survivors there, as well as a kindly manager]. Nearly everyone who stopped here told incredible heart-rending stories about their experiences in their cars. There was a fat man, covered in mud, who said he was on car 15 (or maybe 16) and of their car only six people got out. I saw locals or officials carrying people away on a stretcher; among them were a twenty-year-old in short skirt who wasn’t moving at all, and a middle aged person drenched in blood. Seeing this, I was very sad and began to cry again.

[The cars that were hit hardest were 14 and 15, or maybe 15 and 16. Anyway, first-class cars. I had been going to get first class; my mother sent a text saying dad was going to buy me a ticket, but I got in touch before he had bought it and said don’t bother, just buy a regular ticket, it’s just a short trip. If I hadn’t done that, perhaps it would have been me lying on the stretcher, unmoving, or covered in blood.]

The rest is just an account of her getting a cab and general stuff about feelings, but the post ends with this worthwhile post-script:

This morning I saw a TV station report that said that there are three kinds of people who will need psychological help: The first is the victims, the second is their families, and the third is the doctors and rescurers. How could they forget about the witnesses, those who but for the grace of God could have been victims? We have also been hurt psychologically. I still have not recovered; when I close my eyes, all I can see is last night. My heart hurts. Can this world be a little safer? Can we not have any more disasters?

0 thoughts on “Death on the High Speed Rail”

  1. To keisaat,

    Talking about a rail accident with fatalities constitutes politicization? Interesting metrics that you use.

    By that standard, I suppose objecting to such talk would be very ccp.


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