David’s Statement of Chinese High Speed Rail after the Wenzhou Crash

The last 12-24 hours have been a crazy one my end, with me being the “rail guy” that an increasing number of people “see” via my tweets and Facebook posts. For what it’s worth, this single, isolated case of a collision between two southbound trains in Wenzhou, southeastern coastal China, hasn’t had the oomph for me to shy away from the trains — and it probably won’t keep me off the tracks.

So far, I’ve taken Chinese HSR trains (plus regular rail trains) for over 200 times, racking up a mileage of over 30,000 km in the past four years (2008, 2009, 2010 and just over half of 2011). And while a crash is unfortunate, I still have to find an excuse to see me (and Tracy) airborne again.

I’ve been active in the conversation about the train crash on Sina Weibo, mainland China’s biggest microblogging platform. On 2 March 2011, at 10:38 Beijing time, if you were watching my Weibo stream, you saw this:

I’ve been on the Chinese high speed railway trains for hundreds of times, and I’m often in VIP class behind the driver at the front of the train. I can use that to assure that the Chinese HSR is safe, and I have nearly 20,000 km of mileage behind this to prove that it’s safe. Easy: if the HSR isn’t safe, along with the death of my driver comes my death as well! (我坐過百次以上中國高鐵,經常是坐在司機後的特等座的,我可以以此保證中國高鐵是安全的,總里程將近兩萬公里的我可以擔保中國高鐵是安全的。很簡單,高鐵不安全的話,司機死我死!)

Of course, since I tweeted that, I don’t deny that — David Feng doesn’t eat his words. But take a look at when this thing was posted: 2 March 2011. We are about four and a half months away from that period in time right now. Nobody can predict the future — it’s true. (Especially the weathermen. Beijing is due for an afternoon deluge and as I’m posting this at 14:49, I’ve yet to see the heavens open.)

So, it’s simple: I can’t go ahead and post stuff like “So and so will happen at so and so” unless I’m the one in charge. When I married Tracy, I posted the “MARRIED” tweet after we were married. What if there were last-minute red tape hassles? Thinking of it this way, I tweet with caution.

I’d like to delve back into the post about the Chinese HSR being safe (which I posted in March 2011): this statement was made out of personal experience — it in no way replaces official stances. The most that this tweet could have hoped to be was a personal statement of a non-affiliated individual “outside the railways system”. I fund all rail travel (at times, Tracy and family step in, but over 90% of my travels are and remain self-funded). If you think I’ve living off the rail ministry, who might be secretly reimbursing my travels, you’re free to Google it out for yourself: There are no secret cash affiliations between the Chinese railways ministry and me, David Feng. The most that there could have been is a simple-as-heck “carrier-and-passenger” link.

I also stated in the March tweet that “if the driver dies, I die as as well”. This bit I also kid you not. In much of the rail travel I did, I rode in the Beijing-Tianjin Intercity HSR, which uses almost exclusively CRH3C trains. (Germans may come to think of this train as the “Velaro CN” train.) On these trains, the front of the train is open for riders to travel in. Seats 1-8 in the frontmost carriage, right behind the driver, are considered VIP class. Riders are totally free to sit behind the driver and to enjoy life “right behind the controls”, where they are separated from the driver by only a glass window and a glass door.

Given where this VIP lounge at the front of the train is, let’s think of it this way: if there’s an accident, the driver would nearly certainly die. Given how close we are to the driver at that part of the train, we’d struggle coming out as one single part as well. Hence, the statement “if the driver dies, I die too” is not an exaggeration! I often travel in Seat 1, which is very close to the driver: I think we are separated only by mere metres.

And it is not like that I have been in that part of the train only once — or have only taken the HSR a few times. Through to 23 July 2011, my total mileage since 2008 has been 36,053.33 km over 215 rides. Only six of these rides, totalling not even 1,000 km, are outside the mainland of China. For the 13,668 km of travel I did this year, 63.3% were on high speed rail. That’s just about a third; it means two rides out of three are on those CRH trains that plowed into each other last night.

Although I am not the Number 1 rider on the Chinese rails (outside of rail staff), I do have a fair bit of miles behind me. Chinese trains have taken me to Tianjin, Shijiazhuang, Chengdu, Qingdao, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Wuhan, Shanghai, Harbin, and places beyond. I think the only bits of China I’ve yet to touch are those in the west — like Xinjiang, Tibet or Lanzhou.

Despite being one of the most avid riders of the Chinese rails (I’m sometimes surprised by HSR attendants who just outright “know me” — those who go, “Do you ride this line a lot? I think I know you…”), I do not in any way control or own financial interests in the Chinese Ministry of Railways or any part of the Chinese HSR system. I’d also like to take this chance to go back to what happened last night, and state very clearly:

The incident of 23 July 2011 was one which was completely outside my control.

(I think that not even the minister of railways wanted to see this happen.)

Having said that, one incident involving casualties cannot be enough to completely shatter the Chinese railway safety record.

But an accident that has happened is an accident — period, and what’s next has to be improvements in safety and a tally of who was responsible for the crash. I think that a responsible railways ministry might want to take the time to do a little soul searching and do all possible to improve safety across the whole network. For those involved in “the making of” this crash (sorry to say it this way), my stance is simple: Punish, demote, and fire, as needed. I’m impartial on this — from the grassroots ranks to the highest echelons of the rail ministry, my stance is the same.

Like I said, one crash can’t drag a whole nation’s HSR down. I’ll still be taking trains to get from A to B. China still has some miraculously fast — and safe — trains running at 350 km/h — one of my favourites, the Beijing-Tianjin Intercity HSR, runs at speeds well over 300 km/h. That line counts me as a veteran rider. This crash won’t keep me away from my Rail First policy — I will still be considering the railways first, when doing domestic travel in China or within much of Western and Central Europe.

This is a fair lengthy blog post, and it has just about summarised my points of view regarding this crash. I leave this post as-is. Of course there might be those who might thinking that cherry picking and mixing and moulding parts of this post might be a cool way to distort truths. If that’s the case, well, I’ll let it be (and give the censors a day off) — but be forewarned: people who use this post to distort truths will bear all consequences and liabilities, including civil and criminal responsibilities.

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