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Collapse of China Track Section Highlights Flaws in High-Speed-Rail Program

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Map Courtesy of The Transport Politic
China will spend more than $1 trillion to expand its railway system, by 2020, to 120,000 km from the current 78,000 km.
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When faced with controversies involving the country's prestigious high-speed-rail program, Chinese officials are not shy about departing from the Communist Party line that is carefully scripted in Beijing. Instead of blandly agreeing that setbacks are minor and all is well, they instead are willing to find fault and even differ with each other publicly.

When a section of new high-speed-rail track collapsed in the central Hubei province in March, the Xinhua news agency—the government organ that usually has the final say in public debates—blamed the event on heavy rains. A senior railway official quickly began to poke holes in the official version.

"If the rain could destroy a railway line, then what kind of a project is that?" Wang Zujian, director of the railway construction bureau in Hubei, told journalists after a 300-meter railway section collapsed and a 7.2-kilometer stretch was damaged at different places on March 13. The 291-km line connecting the Yangtze River cities of Wuhan and Yichang was hit just two months after the line was scheduled to begin operations. The timing underscored poor project oversight and made it even more difficult for the concerned officials to explain their carelessness.

Such an incident would go almost unnoticed in many countries, but China is different. The country has emerged as the world’s biggest builder of high-speed railways, with 10,000 km of operational lines either in service or under construction. Until 2006, China imported rail components, mostly from Japanese and European suppliers; more and more, however, technology and equipment are produced domestically. China plans to connect most major cities by completing, by 2020, a $300-billion high-speed-rail program that covers 16,000 km. Leaders hope the work at home will pay off overseas, as China now is poised to emerge as a major exporter of high-speed-rail projects. State-owned China Railway Construction Corp. Ltd. has signed deals to build and supply railway networks of varying speeds in Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Tanzania and Turkey.

Within China, the incident caused a massive furor because it came on the back of a tragic accident on a high-speed track last July that killed 40 people and inured nearly 200 in Wenzhou city in southeastern China. The collision between two bullet trains forced the railways to slow the hectic pace of new-line construction and cut the speed of the high-speed trains by about 50 km, to 300 km per hour.

The official investigations that followed the Wenzhou crash found no fault with the locally made engines, their drivers or the track design. It blamed the disaster on signaling equipment that malfunctioned when hit by lightning. The probe also brought intense focus on the speed of project construction, corruption in contract awards and safety-management neglect. Project delivery schedules were disrupted in 2009 when the central government injected huge funding into rail construction as part of a $586-billion economic stimulus package.

Some independent experts, including those working for the World Bank, have ruled out systemic or design failure as the reason for the latest incident in mid-March of line submergence. One thread of the collapse probe highlights materials that did not conform to design specifications and the estimated load factor at the Wuhan-Yichang construction site. The second possibility suggests improper compacting of the materials at the submergence segment, the experts said. They do not dismiss the rain factor, because heavy rains can seep under the roadbed.

"There has been substantial upgrade in design. China’s design capabilities are quite advanced even from the international perspective,” Gerald Ollivier, senior infrastructure specialist at the World Bank's China office, told ENR while discussing the March 13 incident.

The World Bank is not associated with this particular project, but the lending agency has gained experience in recent years in evaluating the quality of design and planning in the emerging Chinese rail system.

Railway officials face intense scrutiny because the incident occurred 12 days after a whistle-blower raised doubts about the quality of the materials being used. A Guangzhou-based newspaper, The Time Weekly, cited an earthworks supplier, Ni Hongjun, as saying that as much as 90,000 cu m of earth was being used instead of more-expensive gravel and that the railroad bed may be vulnerable to heavy rains.

The local media has quoted the contractor—China Railway 12th Bureau Group, which is part of the railway ministry—as saying there were no problems with the quality of materials used. The track supervisor also may have to answer for the submergence of the line. Chinese high-speed-rail projects usually employ foreign supervisors to ensure independence in decision-making, but the name of the supervisor for this project is not yet known.

"We hired third-party supervision agencies with strict standards," Wang said. He said recent checks have revealed a unique geological structure that caused the roadbed sedimentation that resulted in the submergence. "The problem was found in a checkup organized by the Ministry of Railways," he told China Central Television. The problematic track segment was constructed on compacted soil and gravel resting on unstable wetlands, he explained.

Wang maintains the track was built to tolerate sinking of up to three millimeters. But it sank between 3.3 mm and 4.22 mm at different points in a 7.2-km stretch, according to investigators. Hu Runzhou, a transportation expert with the Wuhan branch of the state-run China Academy of Management Sciences, told the China Daliy, "The high-speed railway needs a firm base to support it, or it will bring unimaginable consequences if not properly built."

While tranportation experts offer various expplanations for the cause of the track section collapse, it may be difficult for railway officials to escape the blame for neglect and corruption. In fact, the Chinese government now is convinced corruption is an important factor behind the neglect of safety standards. Corrupt officials often use the excuse of shortened delivery schedules as a cover for their graft practices. This practice was evident in the recent report issued by the China National Audit Bureau on the $34.5-billion Beijing-Shanghai high-speed railway project that became operational in June 2011.

The March 19 report cited several cases of graft and irregularities in the 1300-km project. The government lost $77.8 million due to "irregular practices in construction and management," according to the report.

From the safety standpoint, the auditors made a startling disclosure that suggests project speed is valued over proper oversight. According to the report, the railways failed to vet the bidders’ qualifications and, in some cases, shortened bid evaluations to 24 hours, instead of the usual seven days.

In Hubei province, the government has directed hundreds of workers to the crash site to repair the collapsed rail sections, but many observers question whether service will begin in May as scheduled.

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