Saturday, July 23, 2011

More about the Chinese HSR calamity.

It only takes one bird to prove that flight is possible. It only takes one accident like this to prove that many more like it are possible. It only takes one major high-speed rail accident to change the odds from zero to 100% probability. 

Let's not kid around about this.  What happened in China was totally unnecessary and the result of arrogance and hubris.  The failure of the positive train control (PTC) system wasn't the seminal problem, it was a predictable outcome.  Their failure was between the ears of the Chinese decision-makers and their blind obsessions.

All accidents are human-error based.  Bad decisions were made. Machines don't fail by themselves.  We can't make/operate machines that are failure-proof.  'Failure-proof' is impossible. 

Chinese HSR ambitions are filled with a litany of scandalous screw-ups, including graft, corruption and endless short-cuts to meet irrational deadlines.  The project is the result of a dehumanizing culture that puts a premium on meeting the top echelon bureaucracy's political goals.  Criticism was emerging some time ago and at great risk for those academics and newspapers who raised a host of problems in the hasty development and blind ambition to build all those thousands of miles of high-speed track. 

I just received a copy of an email with the following comment: "In general HSR has been safe and I would caution against drawing any similarities between this incident and aerials in general."

First of all, there's a difference between an 'incident' and an 'accident'  In aviation, an incident is an accident that didn't happen.  It's reported in an incident reporting system to which pilots provide information anonymously. An accident is when *%!@ actually happens. This was an accident; and a very big one!

The author of this comment asks us not to generalize from an "N of 1," as they say in research. This was from someone extremely well informed about the California HSR project and living where I live, on the Bay Area Peninsula.  

The Peninsula is threatened by the CHSRA's desire to build an elevated viaduct on the Caltrain commuter rail corridor.  This corridor passes through fairly dense populations of businesses and residences. One might conclude that the comment author is encouraging such elevated viaducts and doesn't want this accident to discourage that construction.

What stuns me is the repeating of the "safe" mantra that emanated from former CHSRA Chairman Quentin Kopp who perpetually insisted on the safety record of HSR in other countries, ignoring the horrendous accident in Germany (Eshede).  

Must I state the obvious? There is no such thing as a zero-defect system. There is no such thing as no risk. Risks can be mitigated or increased. An elevated viaduct for high-speed trains is a risk increase.  Passing through dense populations increases that risk further.

We should have no hesitancy in contemplating the risk elevation in any HSR system to be built in the US based on this accident in China.  It should also be pointed out that this accident was no unanticipated fluke, since the "track record" of this train on the Beijing to Shanghai route had been beset by a rapidly succeeding series of failures already.  A cautious management would have shut the entire system down to de-bug it. But, that's not how the Chinese think.  

I strongly fear that this is not how we think here in California either. 


At least 32 die in east China high-speed train crash

Sat Jul 23, 2011 4:49pm EDT

* Lightning strike caused front train to loose power
* Crowds at crash site slow rescue work
* Scandals, safety problems plague fast-growing network
* Government plans massive spending on railways (Adds lightning strike, raises number of injured)

By Ben Blanchard

BEIJING, July 23 (Reuters) - At least 32 people died when a high-speed train smashed into a stalled train in China's eastern Zhejiang province on Saturday, state media said, raising new questions about the safety of the fast-growing rail network.

The accident occurred on a bridge near the city of Wenzhou after the first train lost power due to a lightning strike and a bullet train following behind crashed into it, state television said.

The total power failure rendered useless an electronic safety system designed to warn following trains of stalled trains on the tracks up ahead, and automatically halt them before a collision can occur, the report added.

It showed one or possibly two carriages on the ground under the bridge, with another hanging above it. Several other carriages derailed in the accident near Wenzhou, some 860 miles (1,380 kms) south of Beijing.

More than 200 people have been taken to hospital, the official Xinhua news agency added.
One train was heading from Beijing to the coastal city of Fuzhou, the other was running from Zhejiang provincial capital Hangzhou, also to Fuzhou.

"The train suddenly shook violently, casting luggage all around," Xinhua quoted survivor Liu Hongtao as saying.

"Passengers cried for help but no crew responded."

State television broadcast appeals for people not involved in the rescue effort to stay away, saying they were hampering efforts to get survivors out of the wrecked carriages and to hospital.


The Railway Ministry has ordered emergency safety checks on the country's trains, Xinhua added.
Users on China's popular Twitter-like microblogging service Weibo spread appeals for people to donate blood and help look for lost relatives and friends.

"I'm looking for Lu Haitian who was in carriage 3. Please send along any clues you have!" wrote "Noodle Kung-fu".

Others, though, criticised the safety record of China's much-hyped high-speed trains.

The flagship Beijing-Shanghai high-speed rail line has been plagued by power outages, leaving passengers stranded on stuffy trains for hours at least three times since opening a month ago.

"China's high-speed trains are rubbish! They have frequent accidents and they've only been in service a few years," wrote "I believe in snow."

"We should learn from Japan. They've been running them for years with no problems."

The government has spent billions of dollars improving the railway network of the world's most populous country and has said it plans to spend $120 billion a year for several years on railway construction

The Beijing-Shanghai link is the latest and most feted segment of a network the government hopes will stretch over 45,000 km (28,000 miles) by the end of 2015.

But the vast network has been hit by a series of scandals in addition to the safety incidents of the past few months. Three railway officials have been investigated for corruption so far this year, according to local media reports.

In February, Liu Zhijun was sacked as railways minister for "serious disciplinary violations". He had led the rail sector's investment drive over the past decade. [ID:nTOE71O053]

China's last major train disaster was in 2008, when an express train travelling from Beijing to the eastern coastal city of Qingdao derailed and collided with another train, killing 72 and injuring 416 people.

China South Locomotive and Rolling Stock Corp Ltd (CSR) (1766.HK) (601766.SS) and China North Locomotive and Rolling Stock Corp Ltd (601299.SS) are the dominant train makers in China.

(Additional reporting by Jacqueline Wong and Jason Subler in Shanghai; Editing by Sophie Hares)

1 comment:

mulp said...

You do realize passenger trains that aren't HSR kill about the same number of passengers some place in the world 2-3 times a year, don't you?

And each day, twice times the number of people killed in the first major accident in three years of CHR service die each day on the US highways and roads.

And we know with 100% certainty that almost 100 people will die on US highways today, and tomorrow, and the day after.