China's High-Speed Rail Cautiously Back on Track

It is one year since the fatal Wenzhou train crash dented China's enthusiasm for high-speed trains. Construction and operation has resumed of high-speed railway networks, but at a slower pace and in a more cautious way.

Instead of mentioning the accident on Monday, the country's railway ministry announced China's completion of railway to Lop Nur, a northwest dried lake where China exploded its first atom bomb, on its official website.

Passengers Return

In Hanzhou, several thousands kilometers from where the train collision happened on July 23 last year taking 40 lives, it is another busy day for the railway network during the summer travel peak.

The waiting-halls in the Hangzhou Railway Station are, as usual, flooded with business travelers, homecoming students and tourists.

Passengers that once avoided taking high-speed trains after the Wenzhou accident have returned one year later.

"There is no better choice, and the chance of there being an accident is low, anyway," said Huang Yunyi, a clerk at a foreign trade company in Hangzhou, provincial capital of Zhejiang.

A high-speed train slammed into a stalled train near the eastern city of Wenzhou, leaving 40 people dead and 172 injured. The incident was blamed on faulty signaling equipment, and 54 officials, including former Railway Minister Liu Zhijun, have been punished.

About 52.6 million passengers trips have been made on the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed line since it started operation on June 30 last year, according to the railway operator.

People were lining up before ticket counter to take the Beijing-Tianjin high-speed train this afternoon. The line between the two cities, which opened August 1, 2008, is China's first high-speed railway, with a designed maximum speed of 300-350 kilometers per hour.

A Xinhua reporter who took the train found that every seat in the car was occupied.

But it still takes time to heal wounds of the past tragedy. For Xiang Weiyi, who was the last survivor to be found in the wreckage, the train crash not only took away her parents, but also left her with serious injuries to her left leg at the age of two.

The girl is now able to walk, run and jump, which is a "miracle," according to her uncle, Xiang Yuyu.

"Every Chinese expects the fatal incident could make for a more safe railway system," said Feng Gang, a sociology professor with the Zhejiang University.

"I will continue to support the development of our high-speed trains, as they are among a few high-tech miracles which people can feel proud of in China," said Chen Shiyi, Head of Graduate School of Peking University and a visiting scholar of Los Almos.

The combined length of China's high-speed railway has reached 13,000 kilometers, the most out of any other country in the world.

New Lines

In response to the fatal accident, China slowed down work on new lines, conducted nationwide safety checks and ordered train to cut speeds — some of the lines have cut train speeds to less than 200 kilometers per hour.

In late May, the Ministry of Railways (MOR) told Xinhua that only 2,322 kilometers of new high-speed lines would open this year, down from a plan of seven high-speed lines totaling 3,500 kilometers in March, and that the opening of the remaining lines could be postponed.

The first new line to open, Beijing-Wuhan, will add 1125 km to the network. The maximum design speed of the line is 350km/h and, in line with international practice to maintain a safety margin, trains will run at a maximum of 300km/h, said the MOR. Nevertheless the journey time between Beijing and Wuhan in central China will be reduced from 10 hours to just four hours.

The new Beijing-Wuhan line will connect with the existing high-speed line running from Wuhan south to Shenzhen, adjoining Hong Kong, so that for the first time Beijing, Wuhan, Guangzhou and Shenzhen will be connected by high-speed trains.

The second new line to open this year is the 293km Wuhan-Yichang section of the Shanghai-Wuhan-Chengdu line, which has a design speed of 200km/h. This will be followed by the completion of this major artery connecting the country' s developed east and less-developed mountainous western region, which will allow trains to average 200km/h. Wuhan will then become a new hub of the high-speed network.

Finally, the 904km Harbin-Shenyang-Dalian high-speed line, which runs through China' s northeastern region, will enter service. The journey time between Harbin and Dalian is expected to be reduced by two-thirds from nine to three hours.

"Two to six months must be allowed for commissioning and dynamic performance testing," according to the MOR. "After that, another one to three months must be given for test running. All new lines must go through these procedures before being put into operation."

China set itself a target to raise 500 billion yuan (79.4 billion U.S.dollars) for both high-speed and conventional line development this year. But in the first four months, the MOR only invested 89.6 billion yuan, down 48.3 percent year-on-year.

Debt has remained high in the railway sector. The MOR, the main investor in China's railway projects, reported a loss of 7 billion yuan in the first quarter, with its debt-to-asset ratio standing at around 60 percent.

Private Investment

To bring more high-speed lines into service, the cash-strapped MOR issued a guideline in May, considered to be by far the most open and detailed in the sector, inviting private investors to participate in rail projects.

In this document, the MOR says it will treat private investors impartially when they invest in railway projects. Eligible investors will be allowed to participate in railway design, construction, consultation and equipment purchase.

Investors will be encouraged to invest in all kinds of railways, including passenger lines and profitable coal-carrying heavy-haul railways. The guideline also says railway-related companies are encouraged to go public while more insurance companies are welcomed to invest in rail.

Wang Mengshu, an expert on railway technology and a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, has applauded the move to break the funding monopoly, and expects to see more.

But he said that private companies will also remain cautious in entering the railway sector unless there is a good profit distribution scheme between the government and the company.

Copyright 2008 LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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