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Signals for India in China's train crash

For every Indian who tours China making envious comparisons with the infrastructure back home, there is a message from the nation’s first bullet train collision that has enraged citizens en masse to question the secrecy and speed driving Chinese development plans, including the world’s fastest high-speed rail expansion.

world Updated: Jul 28, 2011 23:23 IST
Reshma Patil

For every Indian who tours China making envious comparisons with the infrastructure back home, there is a message from the nation’s first bullet train collision that has enraged citizens en masse to question the secrecy and speed driving Chinese development plans, including the world’s fastest high-speed rail expansion.

China’s secretive railway ministry is under fire on allegations of a cover-up after a bullet train collided last Saturday with a train stalled by lightning, killing 39 and injuring nearly 200. The state media is defying reported orders to refrain from investigations and gloss over survivor stories.

At the Beijing Jiaotong University, Professor Zhao Jian now recalls his advice to the railway ministry against building passenger trains cruising beyond 200 kmph. Zhao gave India’s example to argue that China should focus on building a similar denser freight rail network. In 2009, the economist travelled second-class on a Delhi-Mumbai train.

“India seemed familiar like China 15 years ago,’’ Zhao told HT. “Indian railways have outdated equipment. The stations are dirty and crowded.''

He saw beyond the chaotic surface of the transport system and came back convinced that China can take pointers on railway management from India. “India doesn’t need high-speed trains,’’ he said, adding that India can also make a ‘rational choice’ on development. “In China,’’ he compared, “the decisions are too political.’’

By 2010, China had 91,000 km railroad compared to India’s denser 63,327 km network. By next year, China's 8,358 km high-speed railroad, the world’s longest, will grow to 13,000 km even as polls find that passengers favour slower, cheaper trains. Netizens are now debating if this expansion is too much too soon since the first bullet train rolled out in mid-2008.

Warnings of safety problems and low occupancy were looming since China’s railway minister was sacked earlier this year on allegations of corruption. Days before the crash, a series of power failures and malfunctions stalled bullet trains on the 1,318-km Beijing-Shanghai route that opened a year before deadline on June 30. Zhao was on an inspection team invited on a 350 kmph test run of this train. “I directly told them that China should not build bullet trains,’’ he said. “The cost of construction and operation is too high.’’

Relatives of victims of the collision protested this week at a train station, unfurling banners demanding disclosures.