Reading into China’s rail crash

In 2009, economist Zhao Jian returned to Beijing from a study tour of the Indian railways, and wrote that China should learn from India’s example and expand freight rail network instead of pouring mega millions in bullet trains.

Days after his piece was published, the former railway minister Liu Zhijun, sacked for corruption this year and nicknamed Great Leap Liu for his orders to design trains topping 350 kmph, summoned Zhao’s boss at the Beijing Jiaotong (transportation) University. He defended his colleague’s right to express his views, but some days later he reportedly told Zhao “if you write things like this, it will affect the ability of the university to get [research] topic [grants from the government].”

A translation of this slice of the inside story of the world’s fastest, longest and most secretive expansion of high-speed rail is available here.

The writers, however, asked more questions than investigating the answers. “As a major strategic national infrastructure project whose budget surpassed that of even the Three Gorges Dam project, how was it that there was no need to put it to a vote within the National People’s Congress? Even further, why was it that information about this project, with direct concern for the national welfare and the people’s livelihood, and expending massive resources drawn from taxpayer monies, could not be made public during the decision-making process and we subjected to public discussion? Why is it that even such basic figures as seat occupancy rates for the high-speed rail have remained a secret, so that even researchers in this area cannot access this information?”

An HT interview with Zhao Jian, published in my Friday column, is available here. Zhao told me that even research scholars advising the railway ministry have no information of what is going on inside it. We met six days after a high-speed train smashed into another train that was stalled by lightning and blackout in east China, killing 40 and injuring 190.

The propaganda machinery ordered the Chinese media to focus on “stories that are extremely moving, like people donating blood and taxi drivers refusing to accept fares” and “great love in the face of great tragedy.”

The state-run Chinese media and millions of micro-blogging netizens hit back against the propaganda – for a week – tweeting faster than the censors could delete. They raised many angry questions – why did lightning stall a high-speed train, why did the signal systems fail to warn the approaching train, why did staff in the control room fail to stop the collision, why were trains on the route resumed so soon, why were lawyers reportedly told not to accept compensation cases, why were carriages buried on the spot and later retrieved, why is the railway ministry gunning for bullet trains despite low occupancy and high ticket prices?

A Chinese media specialist, whose own posts were censored and deleted this week, said the media’s outspokenness may be temporary. The state controls on the media will get ‘tighter and tighter,’ he said.

China’s urban miracle is planned behind a great impenetrable wall by a leadership guarded from public scrutiny. During the last week the media and netizens tried to break free from the state grip and brought sustained pressure on railway authorities to correct some of the bungled investigations and double compensation for the victims’ families.

While the Chinese chase speed, India is painfully slow and insensitive in modernising a creaking, over-crowded network that transports a Mumbai-sized population per day. The muzzle is now back on the Chinese media with fresh orders to report only positive and official versions on the accident. But the media’s temporary burst of free speech and public sensitivity to the accident is worth noting. In India, we need to keep the railway ministry under the microscope and demand answers to some of the same questions clamouring across China, without waiting for the next tragedy on the tracks.

The Foreign Policy blog quotes journalist Lloyd Lofthouse’s comparison of the death toll on the railway tracks in the US, India and China in 2007. Out of the 177 rail accidents during that period, 20% occurred in the United States, 15% occurred in India, and only 4% occurred in China. “But the death toll in India was far greater.”

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