Tag Archives: industrial accidents

An Indian Lesson For China’s High-Speed Railways

An interesting tidbit from our man in Delhi who says that the 7/23 Wenzhou train crash has struck a particular note there as India evaluates where to build its first high-speed passenger rail line.

For all its extensive rail system and extensive railway exports to elsewhere in Asia and Africa, India has been cautious about committing the considerable financial resources that are needed for such projects. But what caught our ear was our man’s description of how public the debate has been in India over high-speed rail and how independent the assessments of the feasibility of the competing projects have been.

That stands in marked contrast to the experience in China. We read daily of how former railways minister, Liu Zhijun, now removed from office and under investigation for corruption, forced through his plans to build out rapidly China’s high-speed rail network, regardless of expense, brooking no opposition and freezing out critics who said he was sacrificing safety for speed.

In the mid-2000s, our man tells us, when India’s railway ministry proposed a high-speed passenger line from Mumbai to Ahmedabad, the government had it reviewed independently by a state-owned transport consultancy, which decided the project was not economically viable as a passenger line, given India’s state of development, but could be beneficial to the country as a freight line, so the passenger plan was scrapped. No cosy arrangements there.

India’s latest effort in this area was announced last year by then railways minister, Mamata Banerjee, now chief minister of West Bengal, who proposed six possible lines. These the government has had studied over the past year by international consultants, with a choice expected shortly of which will be first to be built. The cabinet is also proposing to set up an independent agency that will monitor the implementation of whichever line is chosen.

How fast the trains will run has also been a matter of debate. Many in the railways ministry wanted to start slow, 200 km/h-250 km/h, though there has been some political pressure to go faster, 350 km/h, to show that India can bridge the technology gap as Japan has done and China had appeared to have before the Wenzhou crash confirmed the worse fears of critics.

Now, India has no high-speed passenger rail lines and China has the world’s largest network at approaching 10,000 kms. But, had China’s high-speed plans had the transparency, scrutiny and accountability that occurred in India, not only might the railways ministry not have debt of 1.25 trillion yuan ($194 billion) but the Wenzhou tragedy may never have occurred.

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The Political Damage Of The Wenzhou Train Crash

Beijing’s top-level ordering of an investigation into the weekend’s fatal high-speed train crash at Wenzhou hard on the heels of a railways ministry decision to implement a two-month safety review of the whole troubled system reeks of crisis management badly handled by a government on the back foot. The leadership has not faced such public criticism for its handling of a disaster since the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

Questions are being raised about Beijing’s competence to look after its people, which hits directly at the basis of the legitimacy of its monopoly rule. That is more serious for the Party than the shredding of national pride in the rapid development of a high-speed rail network, already tattered over recent months by the corruption and safety scandals surrounding it, or what looks like an immediate coverup by railway ministry officials by burying the evidence, pretty much to be expected.

The initial reaction of paying off the families of the victims in short order at 500,000 yuan ($77,600) and the sacking of three rail officials, even before rescue operations were complete, reflects an old-school attitude that government is about administration, silencing and punishment that is increasingly out of touch with the expectations of Chinese. So is the instruction to state media to focus on positive stories while the official investigation is carried out. Online discussion, by contrast, has been angry, and about transparency, the quality of economic growth and the value of prestige projects.

Adulterated food, melamine-tainted infant formula, chemical spills in rivers, the most dangerous coal mines in the world: the list of where China falls short in safety seems to grow daily, and the victims are its own. History shows that every industrializing society tends to have one disaster that triggers change in official attitudes to safety. The Wenzhou crash may or may not turn out to be that symbolic moment. But it is significant. High-speed trains are not mass transportation. They are used by the prosperous, urban, middle-class. Criticism by an educated, well-connected section of the population is of particular concern to the Party, as it is from there that any long-term challenge to its monopoly rule is likely to come. That is why the leadership is now scrambling to regain control.

Footnote:  The crash has also inflicted a body blow to China’s hopes to export its high-speed trains and the rails on which to run them. It confirms its critics worse fears of inferior equipment and shoddy construction that no amount of low cost can offset. Japan and South Korea are the likely beneficiaries, a further prick to national pride.


Filed under Politics & Society, Product Safety

Dalian Oil Spill Bigger Than Said, But Big Enough For A Minamata Moment?

The pipeline explosion at a PetroChina oil terminal outside Dalian two weeks ago that sent crude oil gushing  in to the Yellow Sea is reckoned to be China’s worst known oil spill. The worst by quite how much is now the question.

Official figures put the size of the spill at 1,500 tons of oil, which would be 11,000 barrels or half a million gallons. Rick Steiner, an American marine conservation specialist consulting for Greenpeace and who has seen the spill, told the BBC that the spill was lager than that caused by the Exxon Valdez, the tanker that hit a reef off Alaska in 1989 spilling an estimated 260,000 to 750,000 barrels of crude into Prince William Sound. At the time it was the largest oil spill in U.S. waters and is still regarded as one of the worst man-made environmental disasters.

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=dalian%2c+oil&iid=9419277″ src=”http://view3.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/9419277/worker-cleans-the-oil-from/worker-cleans-the-oil-from.jpg?size=500&imageId=9419277″ width=”234″ height=”349″ /]Steiner guesstimates that at least 440,000 barrels of oil have spilled into the Yellow Sea from the Dalian explosion creating a slick covering some 1,000 square kilometers (400 square miles). Despite the massive clean-up now underway (left), the environmental damage is likely to persist for years and it is uncertain what lasting effect it will have on nearby fishing grounds.

China’s oil companies and officials were already reviewing their contingency plans in the light of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, though reports of the clean-up operation in the Yellow Sea suggest it mainly involves throwing thousands of people at scooping up the oil from boats and off the beaches, some with their bare hands, and spraying chemical dispersants on the water.

Environmentally damaging industrial accidents are commonplace in China. Just earlier this week some 7,000 barrels of toxic chemicals were swept into the Songhua River in Jilin, a source of drinking water for several million people. But such accidents haven’t yet triggered the political backlash that seems inevitable. John Foley of Reuters Breakingviews suggested that was because China “has not yet reached its ‘Minamata moment'”, a reference to the death of nearly 3,000 residents of a Japanese town caused by the dumping in the early 1970s of mercury into Minamata Bay. The case became the poster child for  the unacceptable environmental costs of rapid industrialization, and made controlling pollution a national political priority in Japan.

In 2007, the World Bank estimated that pollution was responsible for the deaths of 460,000 Chinese a year. Authorities have been trying to curb the worst excess of industrial pollution, but it is a Sisyphean task at this stage of China’s economic development. The Party is well aware of the potential challenge to its power that could come from the emergence of single-issue pressure groups such as environmentalists campaigning for water fit to drink and air fit to breathe. Whether the Dalian oil spill turns out to be big enough to create China’s Minamata moment or not, at some point it will arrive.


Filed under Energy, Environment, Politics & Society

Dozens Feared Dead In Landslide, 20 Die In Freak Wind Storm

The feared death toll in the landslide southeast of Chongqing continues to mount. Officials say at least 74 people are still missing, including 47 workers at the iron ore mine where the landslide occurred on Friday afternoon, Xinhua reports. It seems increasingly unlikely that any will be found alive.

Seven survivors have been found so far. Recovery and rescue efforts continue, including for 27 miners trapped underground where they were working when the landslide happened. Their fate is unknown though officials are holding out more hope for them than those on the surface who were buried under thousands of cubic feet of mud and rock.

There is also concern that debris from the landslide that has fallen into the Wujiang River could form a barrier lake in the event of rain, which is in the forecast for Sunday and Monday.

Meanwhile Xinhua (via Relief Web) also reports that a freak wind and hail storm on Wednesday night killed at least 20 people and injured more than 100 others in central Henan and eastern Anhui provinces. Gales of more than 100 kph ripped through 62 rural townships around Shangqiu and Kaifeng, uprooting trees, bringing down nearly 10,000 homes and causing widespread damage to crops.

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Yet Another Industrial Accident For Lack Of Safety

The Taoshi mudslide was a fatal disaster waiting to happen, again: An illegal mining operation, scant safety controls, and 56 people dead with maybe ten times as many missing.

A reservoir holding sludge from the iron ore mine gave way Monday morning after torrential rain inundating the township of Taoshi below. “The mud-rock flow looked about seven meters high. It roared down the valley and washed away the market and the houses in a few minutes,” one resident told Xinhua.

The head of the mining operation and eight employees have been arrested, but the push to crack down on mines and factories that operate illegally or in contravention of safety laws is making slow headway.

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