Chinese subway crash renews doubts about infrastructure frenzy

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China’s flashy new airports, rail lines and highways are often cited as symbols of the country’s inexorable rise. Meanwhile, it’s the reverse in the U.S., where images of Amtrak or Los Angeles International Airport are supposed to evoke American decline.

But a pair of violent rail incidents, one in Shanghai on Tuesday and another in the southeastern city of Wenzhou in July, are changing that narrative as more Chinese are questioning the value of economic development that comes at the expense of safety.


Dubbed ‘blood-stained GDP’ by some, the race to ramp up infrastructure at all costs is now exposing vulnerabilities in China’s economic might.

‘China should be more cautious and concentrated in avoiding risks,’ read an editorial Wednesday in the Global Times, a Communist Party mouthpiece. ‘Although this is hard to do, the tragedies in Wenzhou and Shanghai keep reminding people that China cannot afford failure.’

About 270 people were injured Tuesday when two subway trains collided in Shanghai, paralyzing parts of the country’s financial capital.

The accident came just two months after 40 people were killed when two high-speed trains collided on a viaduct in a rural section of Wenzhou.

That disaster sparked widespread outrage at the ineptitude of rail officials who appeared to bungle the rescue effort and then rushed to reopen the rail line. At least one train passenger famously chose to wear a helmet after the accident to show his disgust.

The incident in Shanghai, which boasts the world’s longest subway system, has again prompted anger toward officials.

A blogger named Qi Jie on Sina Weibo, a popular Twitter-like service, suggested tying officials to the first car of every subway train to ensure that safety standards improved.

China’s central government responded to the Wenzhou collision by slowing down trains, sacking officials and scaling back investment in high-speed rail.

What will happen to China’s ambitious subway plans remains to be seen. The country will soon have underground networks in about three dozen cities, a boon to foreign suppliers such as IBM, Siemens and Alstom, a French conglomerate whose Chinese joint venture has been linked to both the Shanghai and Wenzhou incidents.

Between 2010 and 2015, China will have invested $180 billion in subway lines, tripling the network’s reach to 1,864 miles.

It’s an investment the country needs to get right, as China is now the world’s biggest purchaser of automobiles and congestion has started to take an economic toll. An IBM survey released last year determined that Beijing and Mexico City have the worst commutes in the world.

The World Resources Institute has emphasized the need for sound transportation policy given the effect rising car ownership has on pollution and China’s oil security.

But expanding the country’s transportation network will now continue under a cloud of public skepticism.

‘Careful planning is a must before a city begins to construct its subway system. Otherwise, it’ll be a regret that can last over 100 years,’ Shi Zhongheng of the Urban Rail Transit Research Center at Beijing Jiaotong University told the China Youth Daily.


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-- David Pierson