China's high-speed rail: speed at expense of safety?

Has China pursued its record-breaking buildout of its high-speed rail network at the expense of safety and quality?
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

Has China pursued its record-breaking buildout of its high-speed rail network at the expense of safety and quality?

A curious new report in the New York Times suggests it to be, reporting that the main behind China's railways -- seen around the world as a commercial and political success -- was "sacked" for "severe violations of discipline," or corruption.

Liu Zhijun spent seven years as chief of the Chinese Railways Ministry, overseeing investments of $750 billion, more than half for high-speed rail. The effort turned Chinese trains into a symbol of progress for the Asian giant.

So why the sudden change? Look beneath the surface.

Michael Wines and Keith Bradsher report:

A person with ties to the ministry said that the concrete bases for the system’s tracks were so cheaply made, with inadequate use of chemical hardening agents, that trains would be unable to maintain their current speeds of about 217 miles per hour for more than a few years. In as little as five years, lower speeds, possibly below about 186 miles per hour, could be required as the rails become less straight, the expert said.

Strong concrete pillars require a large dose of high-quality fly ash, the byproduct of burning coal. But the speed of construction has far exceeded the available supply, according to a 2008 study by a Chinese railway design institute.

Such problems, the expert said, are caused by a combination of tight controls that have kept China’s costs far below Western levels and a strong aversion to buying higher-quality but more expensive equipment from foreign suppliers.

All this, despite no reported accidents. (I should add that it's unfortunate that this story plays right into the "Made in China" stereotype.)

It's an interesting conundrum. U.S. president Barack Obama said in his latest State of the Union address that China was surpassing America as a leading light in infrastructure innovation, what with it breaking speed records and building track like there's no tomorrow.

But is it all a front? Is the U.S. competing against a rival that simply does not exist?

(The cliche is true: only time will tell.)

To be sure, China's trains, tracks and speed records are very real. But if its infrastructure isn't built for the long haul, is China really leading the world in clean, green transportation?

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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