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New Issues, Challenges and Opportunities for China’s High-Speed Rail System

Friday, November 11th, 2011
chinese train

China’s high-speed rail system was originally publicized as the next-level domestic land-based transport system, touted to be even better than the Japanese model, which would provide more convenient, systemic, and reliable means of commuting for the masses. No less than United States President Barack Obama looked to the Chinese system as a model for America’s own rail system upgrade.

During the past year, Chinese senior government officials flaunted the high-speed rail program as the crowning glory of the country’s technological and economic superiority. However, China’s bullet-train program was recently plagued with highprofile scandals and controversies that have smeared the credibility of the project. Such issues have drawn scorn not only from the international community but also from within China’s own territories, with their frustrations being hurled against the railways ministry.

Still, the Chinese government seems undaunted by all these controversies. Government and railway officials are keen on correcting the administrative and technological flaws in the program in a bid to continue with the project and push forward past these setbacks. Efforts are underway to clear all obstacles and pursue the completion of the ambitious high-speed rail network that would interconnect the whole of China and beyond.

Issues, Corruption, Recall: Blows to Technology

In February of this year, the global community was surprised to hear about the dismissal of railways minister Liu Zhijun, a prominent figure in China’s booming high-speed rail industry, amidst corruption charges which state news services Xinhua announced as a “severe violation of discipline.” The former minister is under investigation by the Communist Party and is still to undergo trial by court.

There were also similar reports of construction companies using fake invoices during the construction of the Beijing-Shanghai line. These contractors allegedly were cutting corners during construction, with infractions such as using low-quality fly ash instead of the high-grade versions required in mixing substances used for concrete rail system construction – infrastructures needed to support the high-speed trains plying the system. On top of that, there were also allegations that the supervisors employed to operate the system did not even have qualified engineering licenses and should never have been employed at all.

Such allegations of corruption and questionable quality have been an embarrassing blow to the growing high-speed rail sector. These incidents and allegations placed a dark cloud over the booming sector, which intensified into a storm when disaster struck in July when a bullet train was apparently struck down by lighting, breaking down and immobilizing the unit, before it was rear-ended by another speeding locomotive. The crash sent four coaches hurling off a viaduct, reportedly killing at least 40 people and injuring more than 192 others – figures that were strongly doubted by the international community, which believed that there could be more.

Recently, another severe blow was hurled against the already scandal-plagued highspeed rail project, when China’s CNR CorExperts from around the world pointed out that the problematic situation in China’s high-speed rail system is severe indeed – so severe that the Chinese government has no option but to come out and announce the problems and concerns. The July crash, which was first blamed on lightning and later on malfunctions in the signaling system, was not only an indication of flaws in system design but also a clear indication of the railway management’s failure to detect and remedy such flaws.

Impact and Implications

China has invested billions of yuan into developing a high-speed railway network that would rival that of the very popular, and very effective, bullet trains of Japan. Last year, an unprecedented 749.5 billion yuan (approximately US$117 billion) was poured into the sector in a bid to form an enormous network of rails that could span all major geological regions in the country. However, unlike their Chinese counterparts, the Japanese bullet train network has never had any major incidents that caused deaths or injuries since the network went into operation in 1964.

The recent issues and controversies behind China’s high-speed rail system have drawn public anger, as amplified through the country’s various microblog websites and social networks such as the popular Weibo site. The recall further infuriated the public, drawing more catcalls and criticisms against the railway ministry’s handling of the situation. However, this recall move and the subsequent decision to reduce the trains’ top speeds is an indication that the Chinese government is seriously considering the risks involved in the high-speed rail system.

These issues and the recent recalls have made more people question the viability of investing in high-speed passenger rail. Not only will this slowdown in building affect the country’s rail industry as a whole, it will also have serious impacts and implications on other industries riding on the high-speed network’s boom. Such industries include the steel production sector, which eventually will be severely affected with this abrupt lowering of demand for steel and other affected commodities.

In the international scene, other economies, including the United States, who are trying to follow China’s seemingly successful model, will now have second thoughts about the viability of adapting a similar high-speed rail system into their own transport network. Already criticized by both local and international personalities, China’s high-speed rail industry will lose further credibility as well as face less likelihood of achieving one of China’s ultimate goals – of selling high-speed locomotives to the international market.

Moving Forward: Opportunities for China’s High Speed Rail System

Despite the criticisms from various sectors, a majority of commuters plying the Beijing-Shanghai route seem undaunted about the various issues and controversies plaguing the high-speed rail system. Many believe that there is always a risk for accidents on any transport system, including bullet trains of course, but many also believe that it is still a lot safer than other transportation alternatives such as flying. Many also believe that the Chinese government is stepping up its initiatives to comply with the safety demands of the high-speed rail network, and that it is making concrete steps to ensure that these safety demands are met. Part of these efforts is the move by the central government leaders to initiate drastic reforms in the railways ministry. One of these reforms is the merger of the Ministry of Railways in a centralized transport super-ministry – a move that was put forward years ago but was thwarted by the then-ruling officials inside the ministry. But despite the various scandals, issues, and controversies that have plagued the Chinese high-speed railway industry, there is still no doubt that the sector has achieved truly remarkable and unprecedented feats that are as yet found nowhere else in the globe. Such feats include the building of the 710-mile Qinghai-Tibet route that was constructed more than 5,000 meters above sea level across steep climbs and permanently frozen mountain areas – in a span of only five years.

The local frontier is not the only target of the Chinese high-speed rail network, as the largest train manufacturer in the country is now set for expansion into the international market. One such development is the memorandum of agreement recently signed between General Electric (GE) and China’s Ministry of Railways (MOR). The memo involves the joint venture between General Electric and China South Locomotive and Rolling Stock Corporation Ltd (CSR), with the objective of exporting high-speed train technologies to other countries, including the United States.

The China South Locomotive and Rolling Stock Corporation Ltd (CSR) is the world’s largest manufacturer of electric trains, and it has already exported parts and full trains to more than 66 countries, including the 51.5 million dollar deal with Turkey for 1000-capacity light rail trains. CSR is confident that while there are still ongoing debates in the United States and the EU market regarding the feasibility of adapting high-speed railway networks, the possibility presents a good opportunity for the Chinese electric train manufacturing industry – despite the recent issues and controversies.

These opportunities will be bolstered by recent pronouncements from the Chinese government and the Ministry of Railways, who have given their commitment of conducting large-scale safety and quality inspections to ensure that all production and operation safety and quality issues are addressed and solved properly. These include the implementation of effective safety measures that should be incorporated in the railway department’s daily routines and operations. The Chinese high-speed railway system involves the use of advanced technologies that may not have been extensively used before. As such, there is a need to define higher levels of safety, management, operations, and service protocols to ensure the safety and welfare of commuters. No matter how high-tech or advanced any transport system is claimed to be, without the foundations for safety of all passengers, the system will never gain the trust of commuters – and they will never ride these trains.

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