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:
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.