Czech Radio: Chinese rail disaster caused by signalling malfunction

Chinese rail disaster caused by signalling malfunction

The Saturday accident of two high speed trains in southern China was caused by a failure of a signalling device. The system did not „notice“ a train standing on a bridge, and another train hit it at full speed. A technical malfunction cost the lives of 39 passengers, while 200 passengers are staying in hospitals with injuries.

After being hit by a lightning, the signalling device at the Wenzhou station failed to turn green light into red, and allowed another train to enter the track where a high speed train was standing. Following the impact, several carriages have fallen from a thirty-meter bridge.

The Beijing Institute of Railway Science has apologised for a construction mistake. Two high ranking officials from Shanghai department of the Ministry of Railways and one from the Shanghai secretariat of the Communist Party have lost their jobs and are being interrogated regarding the accident.

There have been ambiguities around the accident from the beginning, the railways nevertheless have been rejecting any mistakes. The Ministry of Railways released the information that the train rake was struck by a lightning no sooner than Monday.

Eye witnesses have stated though that the train was standing on a bridge for over an hour. Rumors have risen about the possible technical cause which might relate to construction bidding bribes.

A transport consultant Petr Šlegr comments on present and future of high speed trains (Czech)

„A chain of either technical failures or sloppines is most probably the cause. Nevertheless, the signalling device must count on the possibility that a part of the system blacks out. This means that under normal circumstances a situation when a train hits another one that is standing on the track – regardless if it’s been standing there for a minute or an hour – cannot occur at all“, says transport consultant Petr Šlegr.

According to him, it cannot be judged whether Chinese high speed trains are safe or not on basis of this accident.

The government loses trustworthiness at home and abroad

The Prime Minister of China Wen Jiabao promised a stringent punishment to those guilty at the site of the accident. He stated that safety is the most important at today’s pace of building.

China is modernizing its railway network in the last years, proceeding from Japanese and German technologies. The high speed routes are built across the country as a symbol of national pride, however, the project is said to be accompanied by a large-scale corruption.

The Saturday accident has undermined the trustworthiness of Chinese railway technology. Thus, the Beijing government has grounded over 60 high speed trainsets to have them safety-tested. The authorities have also ordered to inspect all high speed routes in the country. The speed limit was introduced on a newly-opened Shanghai-Beijing HS line.

Originally Beijing intended to export its railway technology; for example, the United States were interested. The central government is facing strong criticism at home as well. The Chinese complain about the lack of interest of the politicians in ordinary people.

The experts however still consider high speed trains a future of the transport. „A far-sighted world must be prepared for the moment when it runs out of fossil fuels,“ says Šlegr. Further advantages lie in the speed and safety of railway transport: „It can be said that this is the second serious accident of a high speed train in the whole human history.“

Authors: Kateřina Procházková (kpr), Ladislav Dvořák (ldv), Kristina Winklerová


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