China's high-speed trains packed, but glitches remain
The D301 high-speed train running between Shanghai and Wenzhou South stations in China, on Aug. 20 carried the same service number as the train that rammed into another one and derailed July 23 near Wenzhou. (Atsushi Okudera)The front car of a train involved in the July 23 accident was buried in a farm field. "I have no idea when I can resume farm work," said a farmer who grew vegetables there. (Atsushi Okudera)
A mixture of optimism and disgust was expressed among passengers aboard a packed high-speed train that passed through the site of the accident that killed 40 and injured nearly 200 a month ago near Wenzhou, China.
Measures have been taken to focus more on safety since the July 23 collision and derailment. But along the same route, delays and malfunctioning signals showed that improvements are still needed for China's railway system.
The D301 train--carrying the same service number as the one that rammed into another train on June 23--was filled to capacity on Aug. 19.
Obtaining a ticket for the D301 train from Shanghai proved difficult; all seats on all trains serving the Shanghai-Wenzhou South section were fully booked for three days.
An Asahi Shimbun correspondent was able to obtain a ticket only after a colleague waited for four hours for a cancellation.
The 16-car train, departing from Beijing South and bound for Fuzhou, Fujian province, was a CRH2 model, the same as the train that rammed the other one a month ago. China manufactured the model based on the Hayate bullet train used on the Tohoku Shinkansen Line in Japan.
Of the four cars that fell from the elevated track on July 23, car No. 1 housed second-class seats, while cars No. 2 through No. 4 were sleeping cars, each with a capacity of 40. There was no change in this composition.
The train, full of families with children and workers on business trips, left Shanghai on time at 3:44 p.m.
Eight passengers said they knew that D301 was the service number of the train involved in the accident.
"I don't care about it myself, but my 8-year-old daughter didn't like it," said a 43-year-old man from Beijing.
Traveling from Beijing to Fuzhou by train costs 1,385 yuan (17,000 yen or $220), more than discount airfares. He said his family would have preferred to fly. But his daughter is a second child, illegal under China's one-child policy. She does not have an ID card, a requirement for air ticket purchases.
"Showing the parents' ID was sufficient to buy high-speed train tickets, so we had no choice," his 39-year-old wife said.
Many passengers felt confident about the safety of the train ride.
"We just had a big accident, so we are not likely to have anything similar any time soon," said Yue Wenxiu, from Heilongjiang province.
The D301 attained a maximum speed of 250 kph, unchanged from before the accident. But it slowed down more than once after passing Ningbo, Zhejiang province.
A conductor explained: "There is a problem with the traffic signals. We are about 30 minutes late."
Another conductor said, "The signal ahead does not turn on."
When asked about the cause of the problem, the conductor could only answer, "I don't know."
Before the July 23 accident, the oncoming train also stalled or was forced to slow down because of failures in the train operating and other systems.
Even after the disaster, signal failures have frequently disrupted train services along the Ningbo-Wenzhou South route. The signals were reportedly switched to manual operations to enable the trains to keep running.
Some passengers looked disgusted. "It's there again," one of them said.
It appeared that the signal-system problems that caused the accident were never fixed.
The D301 passed through the accident site at slightly over 100 kph, about the same speed as that of the oncoming train when the collision and derailment occurred. It arrived at Wenzhou South Station 30 minutes behind schedule.
"We are cutting down on the stoppage time because our train is delayed," said a conductor, urging passengers to disembark quickly. On a signboard at Wenzhou South Station, red letters for "delayed" appeared beside all 10 high-speed train services on display.
The red figures on an electronic signboard inside a car showing the current speed never exceeded 295 kph aboard a Hexie (Harmony) high-speed train that traveled from Beijing to Tianjin on Aug. 22.
The Beijing-Tianjin line, which was opened in 2008 to coincide with the Beijing Olympic Games, used to boast the world's top speed of 350 kph. Following the July 23 accident, however, the Chinese government revised train timetables to place more emphasis on safety. Train speeds were reduced to 300 kph or less on all lines across China.
"The accident has helped us recover a sense of sanity," said a former Ministry of Railways official. "Public opinion pressured the State Council to take action. Gone are the days of a 'Great Leap Forward,' where speeds and distances alone counted as political achievements."
The Ministry of Railways, harshly criticized for mishandling the accident, is trying to come up with measures to quell growing calls for it to be dismantled. The ministry reduced the number of train services and suspended plans to build new lines.
"Construction used to begin before approval was given," according to a Ministry of Railways source, but the overall pace of railroad construction is also under review.
Sleeping cars aboard conventional trains linking Beijing with Shanghai were abolished when a high-speed train line was opened. But these cars will be revived, too, to comply with passenger requests. Trains of the latest CRH380B model, which has been plagued by frequent failures, were recalled. Improvement work is under way.
"This was a totally avoidable and preventable accident," said Luo Lin, head of the State Administration of Work Safety who also leads the Chinese government's accident investigation team, in Wenzhou on Aug. 11. Facing public criticism, investigators ousted two Ministry of Railways bureaucrats from the team.
So far, the Chinese government has only said that serious defects in the design of signal systems and inadequate emergency measures caused the accident.
Premier Wen Jiabao said the entire process of the investigation should be made transparent to the public. The results of the investigation are due in September.
(This article was compiled from reports by Atsushi Okudera and Keiko Yoshioka.)