David’s Statement Regarding Future Rail Travel

The accident in Wenzhou on 23 July 2011 was a complete wake-up call to the rail world, especially in China, where demand for new express routes are and remain very high. Thinking of this holistically, there is every need for a passenger HSR system as this is the world’s most populous country and things need to get from A to B. The highways and freeways already have seen their cases of being overloaded: one needs not to be reminded to the miles upon miles of jams National Expressway 6 (the Beijing-Tibet Expressway) experienced last summer. (This same traffic rubbish repeats itself when the seasons start to cool every year — in autumn.)

Logically, when everybody is being shifted onto faster passenger tracks, the situation on the “regular” tracks can somehow improve. With an ideally all-weather HSR system doing its thing, the freeways would be rid of the cargo-laden snails. Holistically speaking, HSR has every right to exist in China.

But by no means in a shoddy way which eats upon the very ridership it depends upon! The Wenzhou crash reminds us that China’s biggest threats come from within. Nobody in the republic believes in those superstitious cults who threaten to take the People’s Republic apart. But the very republic can indeed be taken apart — and leave billions “naked”, so to speak — if the issues from within are not dealt with. Rail-wise, the biggest problem is terrible mismanagement in the rail system itself: an out-of-date Railways Ministry. In a modernized nation-state, this ministry should have long been incorporated into the national Transport Ministry.

The Railways Ministry remains one of the weirdest concoctions in the Chinese transport and government scene. It has its own independent courts (Railway Courts; only the forests are luckier, with their own Forestry Courts), a de facto autonomous police force, and complete control over just about all of the nation’s railways resources. The mainland is split into 16 bureaus and two rail companies (owned by the Chinese State), and the vast array of passenger service departments, maintenance departments and the ilk, kind of gives you an idea of why China still relies on over tens of thousands of ideogrammes. They are just about exhausting all the possible combinations. It is a unified rail empire with very loose management.

Because this very ministry basically controls everything rail-related, there’s no independence in this system. If crappy, sub-par material is used to make the HSR rails “come into being”, well, so be it. You want to launch an investigation into the rail system? Good luck. Former minister Liu Zhijun has been reported to talk people into accepting the HSR system without so much a chance or an opportunity to hear different points of views. With that guy fired, the new minister, Sheng Guangzu, overstepped his limits in terms of capacity of management by decreeing new HSR routes both offer G trains running at 300 km/h and D trains running at 250 km/h — a feat which requires massive changes in despatch and which might even be fraught with technical difficulties.

And technical difficulties did manifest itself upon the Wenzhou crash, indeed. More trustworthy reports tell of lightening paralyzing the control system on the trains, raising a red alert. Railway bureau staff just about had it. “Didn’t we have too much rubbish about thunderstorms forcing trains to halt for too long?” That kind of rhetorical statement precipitated in Despatch ordering the “hit” train to continue down the line — exactly when it should have been at the stop up the line, Yongjia, to wait for the all-clear.

Despatch then said: All clear, exit Yongjia. Worse: You are allowed to overrun red lights along the way provided you stick to a speed limit of 20 km/h. Train D3115’s autostop and positioning system was, as a result, cut. Basically, train D3115 completely vanished from the Chinese rail radars.

Which basically left the train behind it, train D301, fully unaware that train D3115 even existed. After leaving Yongjia at 20:24, train D301 also sniffed trouble, so it alerted Despatch. Despatch went: No probs; I know you might have communications issues, but go ahead.

With that — a blind (in essence!) D3115 crawling along and a D301 going at significantly faster speeds, the stage was set for train D301 plowing into the rear of train D3115 at 20:34. The fact that a rider inside train D3115 activated the emergency brakes made things worse, as train D3115 only made itself closer to the approaching (from the back) train D301.

Basically, it was a case of Chernobyl on rails: human error costing over 40 or 50 lives. (Don’t for a moment buy the “official version”. Oh, and people were buried alive. Just saying…)

If it was merely a case of human error, I’d have stopped short of slapping a self-imposed train travel ban. But the fact that railways propaganda minister Wang Yongping lied to the public and refused to face up to the facts got my goat. Hence a first ban on rail travel through to 31 July 2011. For the next nights, I got worse things on my radar: a train in northeast China apparently locked its ridership of 500 people firm on the rails for no good reason whatsoever. This, coupled with the rail authorities’ idea of “rewarding” those who come to terms with an early compensation settlement of CNY 500,000.— (in total), was enough to make me extend the ban through to 31 August 2011.

The ban will now be extended. It is not a “full” ban, but it will now preclude “for pleasure” travel on the rails. Every trip must have a firm, definitive purpose. Language teaching, academic or business activities, and IT meetings will now have precedence.

Basically, it turns the previous travel policy of “go on the rails unless this or that happens” around to “don’t go on the rails unless this or that happens”. It also limits travel on Chinese high speed rail to the following lines, which have been proven through actual rides to be either free of problems or of such political importance that problems are basically mitigated to a minimum:

  • Beijing – Tianjin (– Tanggu)
  • Beijing – Shanghai
  • Wuhan – Guangzhou
  • Shanghai – Nanjing
  • Shanghai – Hangzhou
  • Zhengzhou – Xi’an
  • Chengdu – Qingchengshan
  • Ji’nan – Qingdao

It basically excludes new lines until problems there have been kept to a minimum over the first three to six months.

Travel on D trains is also prohibited, as they have been the focus point of transport problems for too long.

The new travel policy also thaws the previous “flight freeze”. Where over five hours is travelled on a train, air can be considered an alternative. Trains, though, are to be taken to the last scheduled stop when a destination is reachable only by bus, provided that stop has transfer opportunities to the bus. Previous limitations on driving cars are lifted.

Basically, the new travel policy is less a prohibition and more a case of placing restrictions, and is as follows:

  1. The absolute “rail first” preference in the mainland of China no longer applies.
  2. All travel in China, especially railway travel, must be done with a stated, legitimate purpose and with the precondition that the purpose can be accomplished and is in actual fact accomplished.
  3. Travel, especially that by train, requires a letter of invitation from the other side verifying the need to travel.
  4. At no time is travel by D trains (动车) permitted. Cases regarding travel to and from Macao will be dealt with individually. This can only be permitted provided a hotel is booked inside Macao.
  5. High-speed railway travel (restricted to C trains (城际高速) and G trains (高速列车) is restricted to 350 minutes a day in a single direction, and is restricted to designated routes. Air travel can be used for travels beyond this limit. Cases where travel is needed to complete formalities with a return on the same day are to be handled on a case-to-case basis with more stringent requirements.
  6. Travel by trains may be restricted in the case of inclement weather.
  7. Travel in sleeper trains will not be restricted provided the above condition is met. But no travel is allowed in sleeper trains if they are operated by C, D or G trains. A trip in a sleeper train is not allowed to exceed 16 hours in total.
  8. Mileage kept will be for references only. Travels for the sole purpose of “advancing the meter” will be denied in full.

Trains are not restricted for travel inside Europe or Taiwan, as safety standards are markedly higher in these places. Travel bans also do not apply for suburban railways not operated by the railways ministry or on Ktt trains from Guangzhou East to Kowloon (Hung Hom) operated by the MTR.

These restrictions also do not apply for extraordinary, non-repetitive events where the need for travel is real and legitimate.

I have to say, it is not my intention to come out with such restrictive terms regarding rail travel. Thank God I have the homeland of my passport to count on for safer trains — Swiss Federal Railways!

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