China High-Speed Rail Report Cites Flaws in Program Development

The Chinese government has officially released its investigative report prompted by the high-speed rail tragedy near WenZhou last summer that killed 40 and injured 191. In short, the program grew too fast and was rife with corruption, fast money, and lax contracting. As the New York Times (December 28, 2011) summarized some of the conclusions:

“The crash investigators found sloppy development of the signaling equipment, bidding irregularities in the contract to provide it and lapses by safety inspectors who were supposed to ensure its quality. When lightning struck the Wenzhou line, the wrong signals appeared, sending one high-speed train smashing into the rear end of another on a viaduct.

“Investigators put the bulk of the responsibility the former railway minister, Liu Zhijun, and the Railway Ministry’s deputy chief engineer, Zhang Shuguang. Before Mr. Liu’s arrest on corruption charges in February, he led the endeavor to build nearly 5,000 miles of high-speed rail in seven years, one of China’s most dramatically ambitious initiatives.

“Mr. Zhang reportedly controlled the contracts for the high-speed system. He was also taken into custody early this year.

“Also singled out was Ma Cheng, the former head of China Railway Signal and Communication Corporation, an enormous state-owned enterprise that specializes in rail-control technology and provided the signaling equipment for the Wenzhou line. Mr. Ma died of a heart attack a month after the accident.”

I identified many of the same issues in an article for National Review (December 19, 2011) titled: “Fast Track to Nowhere: China’s Experience with High-Speed Rail Provides a Cautionary Tale.” The Chinese high-speed rail program has several lessons for U.S. Policymakers, but many of them are ones we should already know. The Chinese HSR program experienced the same kinds of problems large megaprojects with national profiles often suffer, including:

  • Technology was unable to overcome human foibles when programs are rushed to meet national goals;
  • National enthusiasm for high-speed rail outpaced the ability of its engineers to adapt technology safely; and
  • Large-scale programs are inherently less transparent and accountable, breeding corruption.

All this makes the Obama’s Adminitration’s call for fast tracking a large-scale national high-speed rail program seem all the more reckless.