Death on the High Speed Rail: Emerging Causes

UPDATE: Link to a blog post by Tom Lasseter added to the end of the post, high suggest you check it out.

Apologies for the lack of coverage yesterday; our VPN was out and we couldn’t access the blog.

In any event, new information is emerging today that sheds more light on what caused the horrific train crash in Wenzhou (See our coverage of Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3).

First is this Xinhua report, which says the crash was caused because the automatic notification system that should have told the D301 train there was a stopped train in front of it had been disabled by lightning:

Design flaws in railway signal equipment led to Saturday’s fatal high-speed train collision near Wenzhou in Zhejiang Province, the Shanghai Railway Bureau said on Thursday.

Having been struck by lightning, the signal system at Wenzhou South Railway Station failed to turn the green light to red, which caused the rear-end collision, said An Lusheng, head of the Shanghai Railway Bureau, at an investigation meeting held by the State Council in Wenzhou on Thursday.

The signal equipment was designed by a Beijing-based research and design institute and was put into use on Sept. 28, 2009, An said.

The accident revealed the railway sector’s vulnerabilities in safety infrastructure and management, An said.

More damning, perhaps, is this as-yet-unconfirmed expert testimony that the accident might have been averted if the Railway Ministry had chosen to install lighting safety equipment back in 2003:

He Jinliang, a professor at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University and director of China’s National Lightning Protection Technology Standard Committee, said in an interview Wednesday that the Ministry of Railways decided in 2003, shortly before China began embarking on its drive to build an extensive high-speed rail network, against protecting the network’s power-distribution equipment for the trains with lightning rods and surge protection. The equipment in question: those tall poles that suspend power lines along the tracks, from which trains draw electricity for propulsion. That decision came even as Mr. He’s committee—a semiofficial standard-setting body—in the same year adopted standards that recommended installing those lightning-protection devices for big structures such as high-rise buildings and tall bridges.

Those safeguards “would not provide complete protection” against lightning, but they would reduce the likelihood that lightning would severely affect train operation, Mr. He said. “Strong lightning is dangerous as it could short-circuit the network’s power-distribution equipment and cause power outages that could paralyze signaling and safety systems.”

Mr. He said he doesn’t know why the country’s rail authorities decided to skimp on those safety devices. “But as far as I know, lighting rods or surge protectors are not installed on the high-speed rail network’s power-distribution pylons.” The lack of such safeguards, he said, could have played a role in Saturday’s accident.

Mr. He’s claim couldn’t immediately be verified. The Railways Ministry didn’t respond to requests to comment. Ministry spokesman Wang Yongping hasn’t spoken to reporters since holding a press conference on Sunday.

Meanwhile, the media appears to have been let off the leash, or perhaps just chosen to ignore it. Even state-managed CCTV has raised serious questions about government handling of the incident, as well as reflected on its broader implications. Perhaps most telling is this speech, from Qiu Qiming on “24 Hours” (translation via Shanghaiist):

“If nobody can be safe, do we still want this speed? Can we drink a glass of milk that’s safe? Can we stay in an apartment that will not fall? Can the roads we travel on in our cities not collapse? Can we travel in safe trains? And if and when a major accident does happen, can we not be in a hurry to bury the trains? Can we afford the people a basic sense of security? China, please slow down. If you’re too fast, you may leave the souls of your people behind.”

China’s Premier Wen Jiabao, who often serves as the man-on-the-ground for major disasters, is giving a press conference from Wenzhou today, despite apparently being sick:

“I am ill, having spent 11 days in bed, but I managed to come today only after my doctor reluctantly allowed me to check out of hospital. This is why I didn’t come here sooner.”

UPDATE: Well, I guess he wasn’t that sick. Check out this incredible blog post by Tom Lasseter that essentially proves, using only official Xinhua reports, that Wen was lying through his teeth about being stuck in bed for the past 11 days.

0 thoughts on “Death on the High Speed Rail: Emerging Causes”

  1. Fantastic ongoing coverage.

    Sorry I’m fixated on this lightning business. So the first train was disabled by a lightning strike, apparently. Now they’re saying the track warning system was disabled by a lightning strike. Are we talking the same bolt of lightning, or are we now invoking 2 separate strikes in relatively close proximity? But the surge that took out the warning system doesn’t take out the power grid for the trains themselves, such that the later train has no track warning but still has propulsion power. That would seem to be a fairly surgical lightning strike.


  2. First it was an act of nature. Now it is about a design flaw in the signalling system. Was this domestically designed equipment or was it imported from the west? Was this system installed and fully operational. Was it tested pre-maiden train trip. Did this safety backup system undergo routine maintenance and checks.

    So many questions, so many trains to ride…. Bobby Bland or Otis Rush.


  3. @S.K. Cheung

    While I suppose two lightning strikes is possible, both systems would more likely have been disrupted by the same bolt – even if they’re not physically connected in any way the electricity can still arc through the air. I’m not really an expert, but that much electricity, since it will take the least resistant route towards ground, it will often take multiple paths to reach that point, just like water does for instance.


  4. these trains were designed by anti-china activists with financing from the NED, and also did you hear that a train once crashed in the united $nakes of amerikkka? welp im out


  5. To Brightgrey:
    as stated before, I’m no expert either. It just strikes me that one or multiple lightning bolts are being blamed for fairly selective damage (track warning system, a train; but not track power system?). It’s rather convenient. And based on who we’re dealing with…a little too convenient. And when considering that this is apparently not a once-in-a-lifetime event, the question remains as to why mitigation measures for lightning were not put into place.


  6. And if it is just lightning, why fire 3 dudes in the first hours after the incident. What dereliction of duty did they commit to warrant termination…before any sort of investigation had taken place. Did they just get fired because there was lightning?


  7. As soon as the lightening knocked out the automatic warning system, human operators would take over. It is similar to the disengagement of the auto-pilot when an airplane is experiencing malfunctions. So the collision occurred under manual control. Human error was certainly involved.

    The effectiveness of lightening rod and surge protectors are limited. The surge protectors are highly unlikely to sustain 2 or more strikes. IMHO, the training of train controllers has to be improved, and selection for trainees should be stricter, because their job is as demanding as air-traffic controllers.


  8. @ scl yeah I saw that. But to be honest I’m not really convinced by that image. The thing they’ve circled there is not what people thought was the body falling, which you can’t see in the video until the train car is at about a 45 degree angle in it’s fall. That segment of the video isn’t represented in that image.

    That said, I do kind of doubt it was a body. But the original post was just a collection of things people were saying, in essence. I think I made it clear enough where the body story came from, and the video was right there for everyone to decide for themselves.


  9. maybe it’s stupid but if you don’t have signal system working, at least you have a back up solution: it’s called mobile phone i guess the guy called to tell the traffic control bureau that he stopped, so that the following train could be informed (by phone too, why not). How long had the train been stopped before the accident happened?


  10. “Wen was lying through his teeth about being stuck in bed for the past 11 days”

    I believe it has been confirmed that the translation was not accurate, he said something along the lines of “The doctor only today reluctantly allowed me to check out of the hospital.” I suppose a case could be made for him still being ‘checked in’ at the hospital when he met with the Japanese delegation in Beijing. Personally, I don’t think it’s that outrageous that he be allowed briefly out of the hospital for some local official duty in Beijing, but that he needed a doctor’s permission to ‘check out’ for travel, nor that he made that statement. But of course, there are much bigger issues here than this.


  11. @scl
    If you want speculation to be reduced..why do you add so much speculation? Do you have any sort of proof and/or source for any of your statements?!


  12. I don’t do HH. But a cursory Google search of “lightning strike UK train station” showed the York incident of Aug 2006, and an incident in Leicester in June 2005. In both cases, it appears travel was temporarily halted, passenger delays resulted, but no accidents/casualties. Besides, is there reliable confirmation that there was a lightning strike at the nearby rail station and that the strike caused the failure of the signalling systems in THIS case?


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