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High-speed Railway Collapse in Hubei – A tragedy averted by luck

Around 1 p.m. this afternoon People’s Daily reported that a 300 meter section of high-speed railway collapsed in Hubei province, possibly because of heavy rains. As far as I can tell from the media reports, no one was injured or killed (although it does not say so explicitly).

The strange part about this report though, is that the collapse happened Friday afternoon. Why was there a delay? Odds are that this was caused by the ongoing meetings in Beijing that typically prefer only positive news during their sessions. The same day as the collapse, officials assured the public that China would be pushing forward with it’s planned high-speed rails despite “some mistakes.”

Even though there was no loss of life in this collapse, tragedy seems to have been averted through luck rather than through inspections or maintenance. In fact, early last week reports came out about alleged use of sub-standard materials in the construction of this very line.

A Time Weekly report said Thursday that CGGC’s earth supplier Ni Hongjun reported to the authorities in 2010 that CGGC employees replaced at least 90,000 cubic meters of spall with earth for personal benefit, causing serious safety risks for high-speed trains and passengers.

The Wuhan-Yichang high-speed railway runs in Central China’s Hubei Province, an area prone to flooding caused by the Yangtze River and its tributaries. Replacing spall with earth for the project amounts to building a house on the foundation of cake, the source said. –People’s Daily March 5th

These reports were denied, and the official inspection report was cited as evidence of its safety.

This tells us that glaring safety problems were missed by inspectors who were looking specifically for those problems, and most shockingly, that questions were raised two years ago and nothing was done. Given the fall out over the high-speed train crash outside Wenzhou last year which killed 40 passengers and left 172 injured, it is hard to believe that inspectors are still failing to take their work seriously.

While I have no background in rail construction, the contractor reported 90,000 cubic meters of spall being replaced with earth, but only 300 meters of rail collapsed. Assuming that it takes less than 300 cubic meters of spall per meter of rail, it would seem that a large stretch of rail could still be at risk of collapsing. The Railway Ministry cannot honestly tell us how much more of this line was built with the same corner cutting methods and it could be several kilometers (assuming even 20 cubic meters of spall/meter of track would mean 4.5 km of dangerous rail).

Had heavy rains not come this weekend, things could have been much worse. The line was scheduled to open in May, and it’s quite possible that a fully loaded passenger train, traveling at nearly 300 km/h could have rocketed off the tracks in a crash. I worry that this now “minor” accident will obscure what a monumental failure this is on behalf of China Railway’s supposedly improved safety standards and the government’s willingness to put its own people in harm’s way for the sake of “progress”.

Photos from Weibo:

click to enlarge

Update: The railway company is denying that this was a collapse, and that it is instead “routine improvements.” A reporter from Beijing News urged a gov’t inspection team should be sent to investigate if it is a collapse. The fact that it is unclear whether or not this was an accident is all the more reason to be concerned, and highlights the lack of organization and communication from the Railway Ministry.


  1. Haifei says:

    Well, it reminds me of last year’s Wenzhou D train accidents and it ended with no railway high officials stood out and took the responsibilities. They just transferred public charges and angers to the Liuzhijun, a detained former high railway official. What a joke!! We need strong accountability and independent supervision system. Not just in yelling slogan, but take firm action. Otherwise, i am afraid there may be other railway safety issues will expose some day due to poor weather.

  2. […] statlig media främst skyller på väderleken, beskrivs det hela som ”en olycka som undvikits tack vare tur” av […]

  3. Yaxue C. says:

    High-speed rails collapse due to heavy rain? I thought only dirt road in the countryside tended to do that.

  4. Lorin Yochim says:

    Given the sources cited, I don’t quite understand the conclusion that the story shows “the government’s willingness to put its own people in harm’s way for the sake of “progress.” What interest, precisely, would the government have in deliberately putting people in harm’s way? There are many explanations for this kind of event, none of them flattering for the responsible parties, but they have the advantage of being plausible.

    • Tom says:

      Failing basic oversight of gov’t projects that represent billions of gov’t dollars is negligence. When you have specific reports, and yet somehow still fail to find the problem, it seems like a willingness to risk safety for the sake of completing the project on time. Especially given the Wenzhou crash, you would think such projects would have been more carefully inspected.
      Since I don’t think you’ll be satisfied with that answer, I’ll offer you this, why didn’t the gov’t more carefully inspect the project after being tipped off that substandard materials were used?

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        Well, no, I wouldn’t be satisfied with the answer, because that wasn’t the question. I would agree that better inspection is in order and that there is negligence. The linked stories are efforts at damage control, no doubt. Also no doubt that poor construction and inspection are involved. Clearly I have no idea what caused the collapse, so I’ll leave that kind of speculation to others who also don’t know. But are we seriously going to conclude the “the government” has an interest in collapsing rail lines and putting people in harm’s way?

      • Tom says:

        The story showing the use of substandard materials came out a week prior to the collapse, so it wasn’t damage control, in fact it is quite damning.
        Does the gov’t have an interest in putting people in harms way? No. But who do you think walked away with extra money in their pockets for signing off on the inspection? No doubt, it was gov’t officials (read any number of stories about corrupt railway officials that have come out in the past year). Who should have a vested interest in ensuring the safety of this project? The central gov’t., and yet failed to find a team of inspectors capable of doing their job. The insistence on building rails at this speed, and at low costs (compared to other high-speed rails) is a central gov’t decision, and one that has consequences for its citizens.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        So we don’t really disagree here. But, for future reference, I’ll just note that in this instance, we’re using Peoples Daily and Global Times as reliable sources of information.

      • Tom says:

        I use those sources as a baseline. If People’s Daily says something bad happened in China, it’s probably at least as bad as they report.

    • Brewskie says:

      I wouldn’t say the government is deliberately trying to harm citizens; I wouldn’t say the fleet of unqualified/unskilled labor, prevalent in much of China’s construction projects, are intently trying to be malicious either. I will say, however, the contractors deliberately are trying to make a few extra bills by cutting corners, using thinned or substandard material; that both the CCP, and contractors, are unrealistic with quality expectations given the rail projects’ high-speed construction; and officials/regulators are too easily bribed, therefore, greedy.

      I read somewhere either Switzerland, or Sweden, (forget which) hasn’t had a railroad fatality since before the 1920s.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        I have to agree with the sentiment that the level of construction raises serious worries about quality. Personally, I try not to think much about what might happen in the event of an earthquake. It’s hard to imagine that capacity to properly inspect (never mind design/engineer) construction (public and private) on this scale is possible. Of course this supports Tom’s point about growth that is too fast. But accepting this ought to leave us scratching our heads. If one supports principles of market driven growth and, at the same time, doesn’t accept the downside of this orientation (crashes/crises with terrible effects for the most vulnerable), then one is left to answer the question, “which and how many of these projects would you delay?”

      • Tom says:

        Is China’s economy “market driven”? More specifically are infrastructure projects? There have been several arguments made for other rail projects that would provide broader benefits to the Laobaixing, and promote industry as well (you can find them on Chovanec’s website). Which projects should be delayed? The ones that they can’t properly supervise would be a good place to start.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        Yes, it is market driven, which isn’t to say that it is a economy that market idealists would accept as such. The gist of my comment, though, is underscored by your final sentence here. It strikes me that the capacity to design/engineer/inspect/supervise may be much lower than we suspect. In the face of that limited capacity, “ones that they can’t properly supervise” may be somewhere approaching “all of them.” Shutting these down may be the right answer for safety, but taking that path would have economic consequences that are hard to accept.

        I wasn’t familiar with Chovanec, so thanks for the tip. I am familiar with Roubini’s take, though, which seems to draw heavily on Chovanec. As to alternative projects, maybe you could point to something specific by Chovanec? As it happens, I attended a talk yesterday by Loretta Napeleoni on “Maonomics”. Most of that analysis is execrable, frankly, and carefully avoids any recognition that a nose dive may be forthcoming.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        By the way, if you’ve heard enough from the world’s economist echo chambers, David Harvey’s marxian analysis of “spatial” and “temporal displacements” is a useful framework.

  5. Mark walker says:

    How serious, widespread is the problem with China’s hi-speed rail? Do you use it?

    • Tom says:

      Well, I actually had just rode on the Shanghai-Nanjing line on Saturday, and I have at least three more trips to make in the next few months on other high-speed rails. Given that flying is too expensive for me, and long distance buses aren’t much safer, I ride the high-speed rails and hope for the best.
      They are still relatively safe, with dozens of trains covering the routes each day, the danger is still minimal. However compared to other high-speed rail lines in Japan and Europe, they are fairly dangerous.

  6. du depp says:

    we all know china has bad practice in safety management/ inspections, we only have to look at the numerous mining collapses ect. But to say the government is purposely endangering ppl is perhaps far fetched, if anything i would say that the construction contracters/subcontracters got greedy, cut corners and were negilent on issues of subsidence of the embanked rail line, i assume that the railline was designed to a proper safety standard, only to be altered in place of cheaper substitutes due to subcontracters or bribed/lazy inspectors. The blame should professionally be at the quantity surveyor for not carry out inspections as they’re meant to check for quantity and quality control. However, i do agree regulation should be scrutinised more, especially in these high risk projects.

  7. Lao Why? says:

    Did Hu and Wen intentionally put people at risk? No.
    But recall the highly publicized People’s Daily article published in 2008 about the laborer, Li Dongxiao, with not even a high school education that learned to drive the Siemens high speed train from Tianjin to Beijing in all of 10 days, far shorter than the minimum 3 months training time that German engineers typically required. This 10 day wonder was hailed as a national hero even though he learned barely enough to find the ignition switch and learn where the brake, and the forward and reverse controls were. Now, I ask you, since this was a national newspaper, certainly read by many government officials and the Railway Ministry is part of the Chinese government, would you say that this showed the government’s willingness to put people’s safety at stake in order to meet a deadline?

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      Now you ask whom?

      Until someone demonstrates what interest the Chinese government has in shooting people off the rails at 300km/hr, then I’ll continue to question the use of the word “willingness” here. Of course we’re playing a language game here, but the lack of anything approaching precision prevents anything useful being said.

      • Tom says:

        Since the 1950’s the Party has operated in a system, of their own creation, where they are simultaneously in charge of everything and yet accountable for nothing. You are making the same argument here as Mao apologists make elsewhere, that the Party didn’t intentionally put their own people at risk. In this case (as with Mao) we see clearly that evidence of problems were presented: massive corruption from the very top of the Railway ministry, the crash on the Wenzhou line, the poorly made trains on the Beijing-Shanghai line, the power failures, and ignoring the specific claims made by the contractor. At some point ignorance become willful ignorance, and as long as the gov’t pushes for the rapid expansion of the rails, which is clearly far beyond their ability to monitor, they too are responsible. You can argue semantics, but it doesn’t change the facts.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        That’s what I thought. Any suggestion contrary to the “malicious Party” pseudo-explanation will be deemed a Mao apologist. Nobody in this comment stream is arguing the facts, although it has to be said that little is known about this incident by any of us. Having said this, I’m prepared to accept what the linked story says as fact. The problem, though, is that the preferred explanation fails to take into account the Party’s objective interests.

      • Tom says:

        Nobody said you were a Mao apologist, I simply drew a comparison between your line of reasoning and others. I also never used the word “deliberately” as you claimed in your initial comment, the word was “willingly.” The section you have so much problem with says “the government’s willingness to put its own people in harm’s way for the sake of “progress”.”
        The meaning that most people took from this was that the gov’t had reason to suspect that there could be problems with the track, but willingly pressed forward with the trials. I did not use the word “deliberately” because I felt that was too strong of a word for their negligence in this case.
        Which wording would you have deemed acceptable, “blindly putting their own people in harms way,” “carelessly putting their own people in harms way,” or “harmoniously putting people in harms way.”
        The story does take the Party’s objective interests into account, the building of high-speed rails quickly. As demonstrated here, in Wenzhou, and on the Beijing-Shanghai line, quickly building lines sacrifices safety in a way that puts their people in harms way.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        Thanks, Tom, although mopedchi has saved the day in capital letters. See my response to Lao Why above.

  8. […] Syndicate: The Pig, the Wolf, and the Dragon Seeing Red in China: High-speed Railway Collapse in Hubei – A tragedy averted by luck China Financial Markets: The World Bank proposes tough medicine for China Asia Times: NPC: A house […]

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  10. Quora says:

    How did the Beijing-Shanghai bullet train line get completed in three years, a year ahead of schedule?…

    This is inevitably going to come over as a “told you so” follow-up, but here’s the news story about the collapsed (newly-built) high speed rail line anyway:

  11. Lao Why? says:

    So, incompetent, corrupt, blind to the risks taken and incapable of controlling the actors when obviously serious warning signs are exposed. But not willfully putting the populace in harm’s way. OK, I’ll accept that.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      Like I said above, Lao Why, I don’t really want this to descend into a language game, but what else do we really have in a purely textual medium? First of all, having read the stories pointed to by Tom and a few others, other than the obvious, the facts of the case aren’t exactly complete. But let’s just say that what we suspect is true, that the warnings were ignored.

      Second and more central to the point I’m trying to make (and I’ll just ignore mopedchi’s silliness below), what I’m digging at here is the problem with moving from what you’re rightly calling “incompetence” and “blindness” to “willfully putting the populace in harm’s way.” Corruption, of course, is a different story and speaking of “willfullness” is totally appropriate in that case, or even in the case of symbolic policy writing that you mentioned in another comment thread. I’m trying to work out the paradox of a government whose objective (and stated) interests lie in keeping people relatively happy, safe, and healthy (and productive). These incidents in which it acts in ways contrary to these interests. It really is confounding, and my feeling is that this idea of willfully putting people in harm’s way is more about waving our hands in miscomprehension than saying anything that brings us any closer to understanding the paradox. The same thing applied in the case of the Wenzhou protest. What possible interest could the central government have in protecting the piss ant leaders of a village in Guangdong at the cost of massive dissatisfaction and bad press? I have some ideas about that, and they are related to Tom’s “progress” explanation, which I think is a step in the right direction.

      • Lao Why? says:

        I, too, am trying to make sense of the paradox. The frustration is of a government that for whatever reason frequently (I was going to use ‘consistently”) paints an alternate picture of reality, whether it is denying that June 4th ever happened or denying executed prisoner organ harvest or a myriad of other items and then insisting that those who question the official reality are meddling trouble makers.
        It does not put one in the mood to accept official answers such as “we checked all the rail lines and everything is okee dokee.”
        Thank you for the heartfelt response and I look forward to reading your ideas.

  12. mopedchi says:

    LW & Tom,

    You guys are waaaay to patient, engaging with a CCP apologist bent on hijacking each thread.

    ARE YOU SAYING THE CHINESE GOVERNMENT WANTS TO KILL ITS OWN PEOPLE???!!! The feigned reading miscomprehension shtick is so tiring…

  13. Brewskie says:

    One has to wonder what the long-term consequence of poorly built buildings, dams, high-speed rail lines, bridges and other forms of infrastructure will hold for China. Sure, some stuff is wonderful and will stand the test of time, but it’s deplorable how some buildings literally age in dog years; criticism of the HSR’s construction quality has been stewing for several years. The badly built stuff seem like such a waste of energy, resources and money.

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