During the second week of June, I took the high-speed train from Hangzhou to Shanghai, so when I first heard of the fatal crash on July 23 at Wenzhou, 295 miles south of Shanghai, the disaster had an unusually personal dimension. Since then, a number of people have asked me whether I would still recommend travel by high-speed rail in China.
The precise cause of the accident — in which one train rear-ended another on a bridge and 40 passengers were killed — has yet to be confirmed. At first, it was implausibly blamed on lightning, but “significant design flaws” in the signaling are now the officially sanctioned explanation.
The accident occurred at a particularly excruciating moment for the Chinese authorities, as the much-heralded Shanghai to Beijing high-speed line had opened only three weeks earlier on June 30. (I had originally planned to take it, but publishing deadlines made the trip impossible.) The 820-mile line required just over three years to build, and its 185-mph trains now cut the time between China’s two principal cities to four hours and 48 minutes. (This is fast enough to compete with a two-hour plane ride, given the elimination of airport hassles and delays.) It was seen as a prestige project, one intended to showcase China’s technological prowess and to demonstrate the superiority of central planning over the messy and inefficient business of private enterprise.
News of the crash prompted numerous unkind people to point out that the Beijing-Shanghai line had been intended to operate at 220 mph, but that it had been deliberately slowed because of ill-defined safety concerns. Rumors circulated about the concrete possibly not being up to specifications, and the dreaded ‘C’ word (“corruption”), the curse of modern China, found its way onto unpatrolled sections of the blogosphere.
To be scrupulously fair, it must be pointed out that the Wenzhou crash did not involve the latest high-speed trains, but first-generation fast trains of Japanese design capable of traveling up to 155 mph. The train that I took from Hangzhou to Shanghai, however, was the romantically named CRH380A, which currently holds the world speed record for the fastest production train at 302 mph. My 110-mile journey was completed in just over 40 minutes.
That day, we left on time, arrived without incident, and the ride was smooth and quiet. The interior of the First Class carriage proved similar in most respects to Business Class on an airplane, with a wide reclining seat and plenty of legroom. Assuming that its safety can be relied upon, the train is unquestionably the best way to travel between Hangzhou and Shanghai, as the highway is choked — sometimes gridlocked — and the standard of driving is spectacularly atrocious.
My own view, for what it is worth, is that the Hangzhou to Shanghai line is completely safe. I would certainly not hesitate to travel on it tomorrow. The service has been running since October 2010; the line is straight; and the terrain is completely flat. I am also pretty sure that the line from Shanghai to Beijing will soon be functioning flawlessly. Given its importance to the Chinese authorities and the chronic embarrassment they have suffered, they will move heaven and earth to get it right. Would I travel on that one tomorrow? Probably not. Would I take it in a year’s time? Yes, definitely. If problems persist, then I suspect they will occur not on the high-profile prestige lines, but on secondary routes — just like the one from Wenzhou to Ningbo. The Chinese have clearly tried to expand the system too fast, with a timetable driven more by political than engineering considerations. Much noise was made about there being 10,000 miles of track by 2015, making it the largest high-speed network in the world. This timetable may now have to be rethought.
Insofar as a tragic accident may be said to have a positive side, it is dimly possible to discern one. For some reason, the crash has struck a nerve in China and has generated unprecedented public outrage. The people who travel by high-speed train are likely to be affluent, educated and to possess Internet connections. As a result, some 30 million messages have so far been posted on Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. (Like Twitter, the service limits users to 140 characters, but Chinese pictograms are also words, so it is possible to say a great deal more within the same limited space.) And interestingly, the Internet furor has had practical consequences. One of the crashed carriages was being hurriedly buried at the site, but when the Weibo bloggers protested that damning evidence was being covered up, it was promptly exhumed. It was also discovered that local lawyers had been instructed not to represent the families of victims, but the incensed Weibo millions quickly decreed otherwise.
Who could have supposed that the victims of a dreadful train crash might one day be regarded as martyrs for press freedom and an open society?