Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Backtracking on China's High-Speed Rails

High-speed trains were meant to be a symbol of China's future -- that its development was going at warp speed and no one was going to stop it.

But now the Chinese government is putting on the brakes to not only the construction of these trains, but also the speeds.

The Railway Ministry has lowered the operating speed of the Beijing-Shanghai bullet train from 350 kilometres per hour to 300 km/h. The ministry insists the reason is not because of safety concerns, but rather to improve operating efficiency, reduce energy consumption and prolong the life span of passenger trains and tracks.

Deputy Railways Minister Hu Yadong said on Monday in Beijing that the construction, test runs, safety reviews, quality inspections and preliminary certifications of the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed rail had been carried out to meet the standards to run at 350km/h. The reduced speed, he said, was not a result of a "failure to meet quality standards in construction or lack of safety".

There had been safety concerns when it was revealed several months ago that the use of low-quality fly ash in the concrete base of tracks that could wear down the rails within five years.

Red flags were raised particularly after the former minister Liu Zhijun was fired on corruption and mismanagement charges in February. Some critics said Liu built a high-speed empire that was too expensive for regular riders and could compromise safety due to the possibly shoddy construction.

Rail officials also said there will be no luxury compartments on the trains and that train tickets would be cheaper than earlier quoted to ease the barrage of complaints from laobaixing (ordinary people), let alone migrant workers who could not afford such expensive tickets during Spring Festival or Chinese New Year, their one holiday of the year.

In the last few months foreign companies that sold China the high-speed technology said the trains were not designed to be run at 350km/h, but officials say Chinese engineers improved on the technology and that the trains were safe at higher speeds.

It will be interesting to see what happens when this route is up and running. Originally meant to be stiff competition for the airlines which are still plagued by runway delays and weather, perhaps going by rail may not be the best option yet.

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