Deadly Crash Adds to Worries About China’s High-Speed Trains

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Workers clear the wreckage from the crash site of a Chinese high-speed train that derailed when it was hit from behind by another train, July 23, 2011. (Photo: AFP / Getty Images)

A deadly train wreck in south China has renewed concerns about the country’s rapid and costly development of a high-speed rail network. The collision of two high-speed trains Saturday evening near the city of Wenzhou in Zhejiang province killed 33 people and injured 191, according to China’s Ministry of Railways. The crash occurred when train D3115 lost power while traveling between Hangzhou and Fuzhou, possibly because of a lightning strike during a thunderstorm. Another train traveling on the same tracks, D301, slammed into the back of D3115, knocking at least two and possibly as many as six carriages off a railway bridge that stood 15 meters (49 feet) above the ground below.

The D series trains, which can travel at speeds up to 250 kph (155 mph), were introduced in 2007 and are from an early generation of China’s high-speed rail development. Saturday’s crash is the deadliest since 2008, when 72 people were killed after a regular passenger train collided with an express train that had derailed in Shandong province.

The swiftness with which China has developed its high-speed rail network has prompted some envy in the West, where strained government budgets and the compromise and deliberation of democracy make such massive undertakings impossible. But in recent months some of the shine has come off China’s remarkable rail acceleration. In February Liu Zhijun, who as minister of railways was responsible for the ambitious expansion of high-speed rail, was sacked and later arrested on suspicion of widespread corruption. In April Liu’s replacement announced that the rail network would lower its top speeds, a move that was seen as a step to lowering costs. Many average Chinese had complained that despite the massive investment in trains, tickets were still hard to come by at peak periods, and the high-speed routes were too expensive for average passengers.

The launch of high-speed service between Beijing and Shanghai earlier this month was plagued by electrical outages and other malfunctions that caused delays and left passengers stranded, problems that hit other parts of the network in recent weeks. Those troubles were dismissed by experts as the sort of normal bugs that will crop up in the launch of any large, complicated system like new rail line. But if Saturday’s crash is any indication, the troubles faced by China’s rail system are far more serious than mere growing pains.