[Viewpoint] Slow down or break down

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[Viewpoint] Slow down or break down

China is flush with embarrassment over a catastrophic high-speed train accident. Soon after railway authorities declared an end to the rescue mission, less than two days after the deadly crash, a toddler was discovered alive, trapped in the last carriage of the train. The very next day, Chinese authorities resumed operation of the trains. It would be simply unthinkable in other countries.

The cause of the disaster still raises a lot of questions. It seems clear that the trains’ automatic braking system did not function properly and the engineer had not alerted anyone of the emergency situation either. The control headquarters that should have kept a close watch on all trains also appears to have done nothing to avert the crash. Experts say it’s the worst train disaster caused by both mechanical and human error.

The Chinese media is currently focusing on the human stories, such as the driver of the train who died while hitting the brakes right up to the last moment. The foreign press, however, sneered at the ludicrous scene of the driver pulling on the normal brake of a train going 100 kilometers per hour, rather than pressing the emergency brake, even as the train was on the verge of ramming into another train ahead of it. Japanese media pointed out that Shinkansen engineers are trained for more than six months in the field, while Chinese drivers are given a quick lesson and a thick manual written in German.

China’s high-speed railway system has long been a subject of concern. High-speed trains become cost-effective when a nation’s per capita income reaches $10,000. But China’s per capita income is yet to reach $5,000. The high-speed railway lines between Shanghai-Tianjin and Shanghai-Nanjing that opened hastily before the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, as well as other newer lines, are being operated at a loss.

To compete with airlines, bullet trains should be able to link two major cities - which are 400 to 600 kilometers apart - in two hours. The nonstop express train which had the fatal crash travels the full 2,234-kilometers from Beijing to Fuzhou for 14 straight hours. China has established the world’s longest express railway tracks in just four years after being introduced to high-speed technology, but at the same time, is sitting on a mounting debt of $300 billion.

China sought to recoup some of the losses by exporting its high-speed train technology. Although its bullet trains are primarily based on Japanese, French, German and Canadian technology, China repackaged it and applied for licenses of its own. It boasted that it has carried 400 million passengers safely for the last three years at the world’s fastest speed of 350 kilometers per hour. China strived to sell its high-speed technology to Brazil, Russia and even the United States. But its reputation as a frontrunner in high-speed technology has plunged as a result of the latest crash.

Fingers are being pointed to former Railways Minister Liu Zhijun, who was dismissed earlier this year amid corruption allegations. He was arrested for pocketing bribes of more than 1 trillion won and supporting 16 mistresses. The corruption scandal has since expanded to the entire ministry. Six senior-level officials were on the payroll of private companies. One senior official turned out to be a figurehead for as many as 18 companies. Railway officials are also suspected of being entertained by TV actresses. Authorities can hardly be expected to do their jobs right when they are busy with their mistresses and collecting bribes.

China is suffering from “comprehensive super-speed syndrome.” It is still unclear if this is simply the price it needs to pay for growing at an extraordinary speed, or if it must account for broader and deeper structural problems. In China, normal people are fuming, and even government-owned media outlets are urging leaders to slow down and look back at its fast-track growth.

The Chinese are finally coming to grips with credibility, transparency and safety. Korea has a lesson to learn from the Chinese tragedy. When pitching its high-speed railway system to Korean delegates in 1989, France’s TGV ran a train at the maximum speed of 482.4 kilometers per hour. The TGV trains, however, have been running at the speed of less than 300 kilometers per hour here for the last two decades - and without any major accidents.

Why is that? Our KTX bullet trains that boast higher speeds have been frequently breaking down these days.

We should watch our obsession with speed, too.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Lee Chul-ho
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