All eyes on China’s new high-speed rail

China’s much-vaunted Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Rail formally opened on June 30 this year, on the eve of the Chinese Communist Party’s 90th anniversary. Capable of speeds in excess of 300 kilometers per hour, the project is an important showcase for China’s leadership, symbolizing the country’s technological prowess and the Party’s forward-thinking attitude.

On July 7, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Railways (MOR), Wang Yongping (王勇平), took the tone of rivalry over high-speed rail technology up a notch when he scoffed at accusations that China’s trains used Japanese technologies. “The Beijing-Shanghai High-speed Railway and Japan’s Shinkansen can’t even be raised in the same breath, because many of the technologies employed by China’s high-speed rail are far superior to those used in Japan’s Shinkansen,” Wang said. He added: “We Chinese would never claim that technologies owned by others are ours. Nor will we ever relinquish our right to file patent applications for innovations developed through our own knowledge and efforts just because of the irresponsible remarks of others.”


[ABOVE: China's high-speed rail system gets ready for operation in December 2010. Photo by "triplefivechina" available at Flickr.com under Creative Commons license.]

But two malfunctions in the space of three days (July 10 and July 12), resulting in late arrivals for scores of high-speed trains, have for many Chinese raised serious questions about the safety, comfort and efficiency of the new high-speed rail line. And so far this week, official state media have noticeably taken a passive, backseat role as social media, notably Sina Microblog, have offered a platform for eyewitness information and a wave of (mostly frustrated and antagonistic) opinion, and as commercial media — the likes of Shanghai’s Oriental Morning Post, The Beijing News, Caijing magazine and Hu Shuli’s Caixin Media — have jumped on the story.

Posts using terms related to “Beijing-Shanghai high-speed rail malfunction” had topped 286,000 on Sina Microblog by yesterday evening (July 12), as the line experienced delays of close to three hours in some cases. In posts aggregated in real time by traditional media outlets such as the Oriental Morning Post, Caijing and Labor Daily, eyewitness social media users shared photos and accounts in real time.

A photo by passenger Tang Yan (唐妍) taken inside a car on the high-speed rail line showed a glass of water on a seat tray with the water clearly leaning in one direction. Tang wrote: “The high-speed rail is creeping along now at a speed of about 5 kilometers per hour, and moreover it’s still going in fits and starts. It’s like a sightseeing car. . . What people find really strange is that the whole car is leaning really severely to the right! I’ve put a glass of water on the seat-back tray, and you can clearly see the incline! . . . I clearly remember it was level when we got on the train.”

A photo in a separate post showed a passenger aboard a stalled Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Rail train fanning himself in a hot, air-conditionless car as workers outside the train continued with repairs.

A report in today’s edition of The Beijing News quoted one microblog user as saying they saw sparks flying past their window on the train, which was followed by a shriek as the train ground to a stop.

But while Chinese social media, predominately Sina Microblog (Weibo), have been an important source of information, commercial media have also spoken to experts, engineers and railway personnel. One of the first rather comprehensive reports came from the Oriental Morning Post, which reached a range of sources on July 10, the day of the first malfunction causing widespread delays, and on July 11. The paper’s report was published yesterday, and made the rounds on the web and in social media just as chatter was taking off about a second malfunction on the line. We have translated that report below.

In a separate report yesterday, Caijing magazine reported that the deputy secretary of the Communist Youth League in Shanghai’s Luwan District, Huang Tan (黄坦), had posted on his own microblog at 11:33 am that high-speed train G212 had stopped for repairs in Anhui’s prefectural-level city of Bengbu (蚌埠) owing to an electrical malfunction. The Caijing report opened somewhat provocatively with the July 7 statement from Wang Yongping about the superiority of Chinese train technology.

One of the most curious things about this story over the past 72 hours has been the way official state media have been virtually absent. This article from People’s Daily Online, posted at the top of Xinhua Online today, turns to a Japanese expert for his remarks following the July 10 malfunction, suggesting such malfunctions are normal and expected, and cautioning (justifiably) that repairs cannot be rushed in such situations. The expert did note that there seemed to have been serious service related breakdowns that had nothing to do with technology.

In addition to the above report, there is this very brief report from the official China News Service. Curiously, the China News Service story on QQ.com, one of China’s most popular internet portals, has drawn just 3 comments from users — that for a story that has prompted hundreds of thousands of posts and re-posts on social media. When it posted the original, very brief, Xinhua News Agency release about the first high-speed train malfunction on July 10, QQ.com added to the release a number of online reports and accounts from social media that seemed to cast doubt on the Xinhua version itself.

Commercial media and social media seem to have led the charge so far on this story, raising numerous doubts about the safety of the high-speed rail and criticizing railway authorities for their handling of both incidents. The finger-pointing continues today, turning now to the official response from the Ministry of Railways, which came in a brief statement yesterday.

A report from The Beijing Morning Post today bears the headline: “Apology from Ministry of Railways Just One Sentence.” The report, which asks a string of pointed questions, including why the passengers were deprived of air conditioning in closed cars and stifling heat, notes that railway authorities said only yesterday that, “As for the inconvenience caused to passengers by late train arrivals, the railway ministry expresses regret.”

We’ll have to continue to watch this story over the next few days to see how continued coverage plays out. Have commercial media taken advantage of a window of opportunity afforded by a lack of direction from propaganda authorities? If such direction is lacking, why? Or, alternatively, have media disregarded or worked around directives?

There are signs controls may have been asserted today, at the very least on social media. Yesterday, a voting feature on Sina Microblog invited users to cast their votes on their views of the high-speed rail, whether they would opt for it in favor of the airlines, etcetera. That feature, which drew thousands of responses within a few short hours, now seems to have been disabled. In the image below, you can see Sina user chatting about the vote and linking to the now inaccessible page, which I visited with no problems yesterday evening. [UPDATE: Voting feature is now (11:50pm HK time, July 13) available again here.]


[ABOVE: Photo of poll results for high-speed rail as of 11:59pm, July 13. 33% say they will still opt for the high-speed rail, 19% say they will take a plane instead, 26% say they will take some other form of transportation, and the rest are unsure.]

The following is a partial translation of the report yesterday from Shanghai’s Oriental Morning Post, which deals with doubts surrounding the first malfunction on July 10.

Three Questions Raised by Mass Delays on the Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Rail
Oriental Morning Post
July 12, 2011
Reporters Shen Liang (沈靓), Chu Jingwei (储静伟), Luan Xiaona (栾晓娜) and Shi Yinsheng (史寅昇)

Three questions raised by mass delays on the Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Rail: Where is the contingency plan?

After 11 days of formal operation, a thunderstorm in Shandong province caused the Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Rail to experience wide-spread delays for the first time. Responding to this accident that caused 19 trains to arrive late, many for as much as two hours, the reason given by railway authorities in Beijing was that “thunderstorms caused the malfunction of the overhead line system” (雷雨导致接触网故障), but no further explanation was given.

Actually, a certain degree of malfunction must be admitted for the high-speed rail, and malfunctions owing to thunderstorms can be understood. But the true measure of the quality of the high-speed rail is shown in how things are handled after malfunctions occur. Train personnel can be taught through repeated training how to have proper postures and smiles to cover up the problems of the high-speed rail service system. But once this system meets with the unexpected, people will be able to see the ineffectiveness behind the smiles.

Judging from the responses of passengers last night, this time around the Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Rail was short of the mark. After trains stopped on the high-speed rail, passengers were shut inside hot and stuff train cars, not knowing what happened, not knowing what they were waiting for, and not knowing how long they would have to wait. Not knowing anything at all, some passengers vented their anger on train personnel, and in this high-pressure situation some personnel were pursued to tears, not knowing what to do.

Train service personnel are just the first point of contact with passengers, and they cannot take responsibility for shutdowns through the entire high-speed rail system. Why did the malfunctions occur? Why did repairs take so long? Why was air-conditioning not working when there was a backup electrical supply? Why were passengers not told specifically what was happening? Why wasn’t more water and food provided after the delays? Why were passengers not compensated? These are all questions that train service personnel are unable to answer.

Media have hotly reported the “battle between air and rail” (空铁之争), and they have at the same time secretly hoped that “Old Man Railway” will show us all in the midst of this struggle that his old way of doing things has changed forever. But the facts this delay incident shows us are cruel.

1. How can thunderstorms caused power outages?

According to related personnel with the Beijing Railway Bureau, “thunderstorms and high winds in the Shandong region were the reason for these train delays, having caused malfunction and power failure along the overhead line system between Qufu (曲阜) and Zaozhuang (枣庄). Moreover, [they said], the power distribution systems for trains on the Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Rail are powered principally through the 25kV high-voltage overhead line system.

Ren Gang (任刚), the chief engineer of CNR Tangshan, has said that the power distribution system for battery chargers on the high-speed rail can enable the provision of power for 120 minutes in the event of that power from the high-voltage overhead line system is lost, ensuring emergency air circulation, lighting and communications. “The trains can still operate as they wait for power suppliers to make rescue repairs,” [he said].

Li Ruiqun (李瑞淳), chief engineer of the CRH380 project, says the Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Rail is a comprehensive project, not just about the trains themselves. These train stoppages had nothing to do with the quality of the trains themselves. Thunderstorms caused the malfunction of the overhead voltage system so that the trains had no source of power to propel them. But the trains themselves had storage batteries [he said] that would allow them to ensure emergency air circulation and electrical power for more than an hour in the event of sudden power outages.

Web users made posts to microblogs saying that after high-speed train number G151 stalled, the entire train experienced loss of power, shutting off the air conditioning and leaving conditions inside suffocating and hot. Well then, if the trains are equipped with storage batteries to provide power, why were the train cars without electricity?

Sun Zhang (孙章), a professor from the City and Rail Transportation Research Center at Tongji University, said that the loss of electrical power in the cars could be due to the failure to put contingency plans into effect. “It’s possible that general contingency training was insufficient, and this can be seen in poor communication with passengers and lack of information transparency,” [Sun said]. As for the suggestion that lightning caused the malfunction of power supply circuits, Sun Zhang says that the trains are equipped with lightning protection systems, and trains and the power supply system should all be equipped with lightning protection systems. “Or perhaps this lightning strike was particularly severe, even disabling the storage batteries.”

2. Why were the train car doors closed tightly? And why did train personnel say nothing?

Mr. Zhang, who was a passenger on train G19 that day said that after the incident occurred nothing was explained over the train’s broadcast system except that the internet signal was weak. Mr. Li, who was a passenger on train G151 also said that after the train experienced a malfunction and stopped in the station in Shandong, it stopped for another half-hour when it reached Xuzhou. Only after we passed the Xuzhou station did the train [personnel] hand out water and crackers, [he said]. But when they asked the train personnel [what had happened], she gave them no response.

In fact, as early as September 2005 the Ministry of Railways sent out a new version of “Methods for Handling Late Passenger Trains” (旅客列车晚点处置办法) to railway authorities throughout the country, and these clearly state: “If trains are later than 30 minutes, the station chief and train conductor should as representatives of the railway authorities issue a sincere apology to passengers; if [trains are] late by more than one hour, [they] must according to rescheduling notices from the railway ministry issue timely statements to passengers to explain the cause of the delay and estimated times of arrival, and work to conciliate the passengers.”

The reporters discovered on microblog platforms that one passenger had stepped out onto the train platform to cool down because it was too hot, and the train eventually departed, leaving him in the station. But [China's] “Codes Concerning Handling of the Breakdown of Air Conditioning Units on Trains” (动车组列车空调装置故障后应急处置有关要求) stipulate that in order to protect the personal safety of travelers, and according to the staffing situation of trains, 4 to 98 doors should be opened to the platform, safety grids should be set up around the open doors and be staffed by train police, service personnel, meal car personnel and cleaning personnel under the direction of the conductor, strictly prohibiting passengers from exiting the train on their own.

At 8:30pm on July 10, after repairs were carried out, the train temporarily stopped in the Xuzhou East Station and emergency water and bread were provided by the train from the platform, only then resolving the problem of tight supplies of food and beverage.

The Morning Post reporters went to Jinan [Shandong] to cover the issue of food and beverage aboard the train. On train G222, Miss Wang, an employee in charge of sales on the train said that if they ran across the unexpected, the stores of instant noodles and other food and drink on the train could only supply about half of the train’s passengers and, “Generally, the train will resupply itself at stations along the line, but if we run into trouble suddenly and aren’t near a station then there’s nothing we can do.”

Unlike train G151, which experience a malfunction and lost electrical power, more than 10 other trains further down the line on the Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Rail were stopped in various stations, waiting for the line to clear. Although they did not lose electricity, they suffered much unease owing to the lack of a contingency plan.

Shanghai passenger Miss Kuang was on train G21 that day heading from Beijing South Station to Shanghai’s Hongqiao Station. Her train was delayed by close to two hours. Their train was temporarily stopped at Jinan West Station for more than one hour. “In the hour that we waited, the train car doors were closed tight, and if you wanted to get out for some air you couldn’t,” [she said]. What upset the passengers on the train even more was that through all of the stopping and creeping along that personnel on the train never made any notice of the specific reasons for the delays.

Web user “Qing Kou Cai” (青口菜) came across the same situation. He posted on his microblog saying that he was on train G215 and it too was stopped in Jinan for more than one hour. [He said] that train personnel were all hurrying about their business but never made any explanation or attempt to comfort the passengers.

Yesterday, an employee at Jinan West Station told the reporters that on July 10 at least five trains made temporary stops at Jinan West Station. The employee said that because the train station and the trains were under separate controls, even though many trains were stopped at Jinan West Station, there was no way that employees at the station could “interact” with the trains. “As for the difficulties onboard the trains, we knew nothing about it, and we couldn’t be of any help.”

3. Why was there no way of offering compensation for delays?

For passengers, the delays have already become a fact, and what they care about most right now is the issue of compensation. On this issue, the reporter reached the Service Department of the Jinan Railway Ministry posing as a passenger from a delayed train. The employee said that right now there are no relevant laws and regulations on this issue, and therefore there was no way of offering compensation.

An employee from the Division of Passenger Traffic Management of the Transport Bureau of the Ministry of Railways responded that there could be a number of reasons for loss of power resulting in late arrivals, and if investigations showed clearly that errors by railway departments caused loss of power and late arrivals then railway departments would consider offering compensation to passengers. “As the railway ultimately achieved the task of delivering passengers to their destinations, full refunds of tickets are impossible,” [said the employee].

[Frontpage photo by "triplefivechina" available at Flickr.com under Creative Commons license.]

One Comment to “All eyes on China’s new high-speed rail”

  1. Varun says:

    These are actually a good thing,
    this way the Chinese are getting valuable real time crisis information which has no substitute.
    Its not like there are Thousand KMS long HSR systems all over the world to draw experience from.

    This will help when China exports HSR system in other regions and countries.

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