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July 23, 2011 11:21 AM   Subscribe

Two Chinese bullet trains have collided with two coaches falling off a bridge after a lightning strike disabled the first train and signaling failed to alert the second in time. A few months previously the railways ministry expressed and subsequently retracted concerns that builders had ignored safety standards to complete construction more quickly.

At present, sixteen are confirmed dead with at least eighty nine wounded.
posted by jeffburdges (42 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
A few months previously the railways ministry expressed and subsequently retracted concerns that builders had ignored safety standards to complete construction more quickly.

This is tragic, but it will take a lot more tragedy for people to realize that there is a huge difference between labor so cheap anyone can become a boss, and skilled labor that would minimize the chance of tragedy.

THIS is not the cost of technological advancement. This is the cost of cutting corners.
posted by hal_c_on at 11:27 AM on July 23, 2011 [19 favorites]


No doubt the justice system will find a scandal that goes all the way up to some very junior employees.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 11:27 AM on July 23, 2011 [24 favorites]


Hard to find anything to be thankful for here, but instead of the combined momentum of two bullet trains barreling along at n miles per hour* in a head-on collision, it does seem like one of the trains was at least stopped on the tracks, so we may have more survivors than could otherwise have been expected.

*There is a terrible, sadistic part of me that cannot get those old math word problems out of my head that begin with, "Suppose a train is traveling at 50 mph...." I'm so sorry, I know how incredibly inappropriate it is.
posted by misha at 11:30 AM on July 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm not trying to quibble, but I was actually really confused at first by the wording (more the punctuation, I think) of the post; this should probably say "Two Chinese bullet trains have collided, with two coaches [train cars or passenger cars would be clearer] falling off a bridge, after..." Otherwise I thought two coaches (and what are those? I didn't know in context) had fallen off a bridge perpendicular to the tracks, and two different trains (going different ways?) hit them.
posted by limeonaire at 11:36 AM on July 23, 2011 [5 favorites]


I'll clarify that quote was selected to highlight the similarity between the corruption encountered in China and the U.S., not as some dig at Deng himself. Like say, the NRC handing out 20 year extensions to 40 year old nuclear reactors that've grown every bit as fragile as Fukushima's reactors.
posted by jeffburdges at 11:37 AM on July 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


No doubt the justice system will find a scandal that goes all the way up to some very junior employees.

Not necessarily.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 11:38 AM on July 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


THIS is not the cost of technological advancement. This is the cost of cutting corners.

"In theory, there's no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is."

Perhaps technological advancement cannot be divorced from real-world politics and economics. If I was designing a bridge, I might want to take into consideration that the contract to build this bridge will be awarded to the lowest bidder, and so my design should be "idiot-proof." The final design may not be the best bridge (fastest train / elegant architecture / effective treatment / etc), but it's a bridge that will remain standing in the real world.
posted by SPrintF at 11:46 AM on July 23, 2011


This isn't shoddy construction. This is a fucking horrible design.

The moving train should have never been allowed to enter the section of track occupied by the disabled train, whether the operators or central controller informed the driver of the second train or not.

Every rail system for the past century or so has been built with interlockings and track circuits that are supposed to prevent this sort of thing from happening without intervention from the operator. These interlockings are supposed to be spaced far enough apart that two trains are never within a remotely-plausible stopping distance of the other.

This is especially important on high-speed lines, because the train operators have virtually no time to react, or even to accurately read wayside signals (ie. traffic lights for trains) as the train zooms by at full speed.

This is exactly how the 2009 collision on the DC Metro happened. Although it's not particularly unusual for a train to stop outside of a station, a series of freak circumstances caused the track circuit beneath the stopped train to briefly fail to detect it. Unfortunately, this train happened to be sitting on a blind curve, and the train behind it slammed into it at nearly full speed (the accident investigation revealed that the driver hit the emergency brake before she was killed, and that the accident was inevitable from the moment that the stopped train came into view; no human error occurred). To make matters worse, the moving train was an older model that had a tendency to virtually disintegrate in a crash. The stopped train suffered virtually no damage. (Since the accident, the old trains are in the process of being retired, and Metro have developed more rigorous procedures to detect track modules that fail intermittently).

The fact that the train fell off of the bridge is also surprising. High speed trains (with the almost sole exception of the Acela) use an articulated design, where each car shares a set of wheels with the one directly in front and behind it. This results in an extremely rigid train that is not prone to severe derailments -- the couplers are stronger than the railcars they are connected to, and do not allow the cars to twist or detach. As far as I know, the TGV has never had a derailment with fatalities in 40 years of operation, despite some fairly severe accidents caused by terrorism and freak natural occurrences. Similarly, if the bridge was fitted with re-railing tracks, the likelihood of a train being pushed off of the side should be extremely minimal.

tl;dr: Unless the people building this line were absolute idiots, the accident was probably caused by a faulty track circuit; not an operator error or broken train. High-speed lines need to be designed to have automatic safety systems, and to be able to withstand normal human reaction times and occasional train failures or other obstructions on the track. Obviously, one of these things didn't happen, or if it did, it didn't function correctly.
posted by schmod at 12:07 PM on July 23, 2011 [58 favorites]


Perhaps technological advancement cannot be divorced from real-world politics and economics.

Except that "politics" and "economics" are not mystic forces, playing with the fates o' men. Those are the results of the actions of people. In the end, it is always just people.
posted by curious nu at 12:08 PM on July 23, 2011


two coaches [train cars or passenger cars would be clearer]

This is a UK vs US English difference.

Hopefully some safety improvements are implemented after this accident.
posted by Harpocrates at 12:18 PM on July 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


This bodes well for China's nuclear power plants.
posted by stbalbach at 12:52 PM on July 23, 2011 [7 favorites]


Human life is cheap in China. And soon, thanks to the efforts of companies like Cisco, Siemens, and others, it will be that way in the West, too.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:53 PM on July 23, 2011 [5 favorites]


I'm not trying to quibble, but I was actually really confused at first by the wording (more the punctuation, I think) of the post; this should probably say "Two Chinese bullet trains have collided, with two coaches [train cars or passenger cars would be clearer] falling off a bridge, after..." Otherwise I thought two coaches (and what are those?...

I was going to say that what confused me was in the falling off a bridge link the average speed of the train tripled in a few sentences. But thankfully I rechecked before posting and notice they started talking about a second, unrelated rail link... so I didn't post a stupid question w00t.

Can I just say this instead: A great thing about being an Aussie around my age is we have a top notch understand of both English and American slang, colloquialisms, in-jokes, jargon etc. Being from the remotest, bass-akwards city in Australia the whole culture had a huge British feel when I was young. Cuisine, traditions, laws, sport. Nearly all foreign content TV was British, a crapload of that being comedy. Most of my primary school learning-to-read textbooks were British [didn't realise it at the time] and all history was taught thru British eyes.

Somehow. Somehow this has done a complete back flip in the ensuing years. Now we're the 51st state of the USA. I find it interesting how often on Metafilter Americans and British have misunderstandings over something like the word "coach."

Willie, Willie, Harry, Stee Harry, Dick, John, Harry Three. Woof woof!


Oh, and fantastic post schmod. How much MSM crap would I have had to wade thru to get such a succinct initial guess?
posted by uncanny hengeman at 1:06 PM on July 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


Chinese high-speed rail has had a spate of embarrassing problems since their recent launch.
There is some suggestion that development was rushed to meet the politically prestigious deadline of July 1, 2011, the 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party

posted by Bwithh at 1:20 PM on July 23, 2011


Engineer Rube Goldberg unavailable for comment.
posted by Smedleyman at 1:28 PM on July 23, 2011


Now we're the 51st state of the USA.

Australia is the 52nd state.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:53 PM on July 23, 2011


Oh. Disclaimer: I am not an expert on railway engineering. I'm a software developer (of sorts) with a degree in Physics (and lil' bit of mechanical/materials engineering on the side). For one reason or another, I like reading about how railway systems operate. I haven't done the numbers to see if an articulated train could/should be pushed off of a properly-designed bridge in a collision (although my inkling strongly suggests that "it shouldn't" after reviewing the TGV's history of accidents)

If a more qualified person wants to jump in, there are probably a few mistakes in my post.

The lightning strike is an interesting detail, and could hold the key to figuring out what the heck happened here. A track circuit is actually almost exactly what it sounds like -- an electrical circuit formed by the rails, and the wheels/axels of the train. When the train passes over that portion of the track, the train's wheels complete the circuit, and pass a "Do not go" signal to the train behind it. These are often coupled with impedance bonds and induction coils for more precise detection of the train's exact position, and more advanced track circuits send audio-frequency signals down their circuits instead of relying on a simple DC circuit.

The DC Metro accident happened because some freaky stuff happened that caused the audio frequency waveforms to reflect, and cancel each other out, tricking the system into thinking that the track was empty. (The engineers had only figured out that this was even possible shortly before the accident. Ironically, the faulty piece of equipment that caused the accident was installed (incorrectly) to mitigate this very phenomenon)

In a lightning strike, any number of things could have happened to fry the track circuit. These things are supposed to be redundant, and supposed to fail safely (that is, the design should be such that a broken track circuit always indicates that it's occupied), although making that happen in reality may be difficult.

Again, assuming that the engineers weren't complete idiots, I'd put my money on a faulty/shoddy track circuit. It's somewhat inexcusable because lightning strikes happen all the time, and a railroad is a gigantic steel lightning rod lying on its side....but I suspect that the Chinese authorities will blame the weather for this incident.
posted by schmod at 2:00 PM on July 23, 2011 [6 favorites]


I was just telling my wife the other day that after a new bullet train from Guangzhou to Nanning is completed, we ought to wait a while before using it to make sure all the bugs are worked out.

This is one of those bugs.
posted by bwg at 4:35 PM on July 23, 2011


Let's see ... computer-based trains that run by electricity, hit by lightning, and there's a disaster - who could have guessed such a thing would be possible?
posted by aryma at 4:45 PM on July 23, 2011


Australia is the 52nd state.

Come now. Vietnam seceded.
posted by dhartung at 4:49 PM on July 23, 2011


The ammunition's being passed, and the Lord's being praised, but the wars on the televisions will never be explained. All the bankers gettin' sweaty beneath their white collars as the pound in our pocket turns into a dollar. This is the 51st state of the USA. [repeat and fade]
posted by uncanny hengeman at 4:55 PM on July 23, 2011


.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 5:04 PM on July 23, 2011


"Human life is cheap in China. And soon, thanks to the efforts of companies like Cisco, Siemens, and others, it will be that way in the West, too."

Good point. If only China were run by communists, then things like this would never happen.
posted by joannemullen at 5:33 PM on July 23, 2011


That's a pretty fatuous response, joannemullen. The myriad problems of the CCP do not refute the reality that Western companies take full advantage of every labour-law and regulatory loophole they can to make money - whether that's in China, the US, or the UK.

There are many such loopholes in China, and human life is indeed cheap. I'm sure your free market fantasy would make it that much safer. After all, life in 19th century Europe was not in any way cheap.
posted by smoke at 6:09 PM on July 23, 2011


Human life is cheap everywhere, despite how vehemently we profess otherwise.

China's a horrifying mess, but just in a different way than America or (name country here) is a horrifying mess.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:24 PM on July 23, 2011


The difference is that places like the United States, Canada, and others have civil society where problems can be exposed. China does not. If you think I am mistaken, I would like to point out that the discussion we are having on MetaFilter could not happen in China.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:41 PM on July 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


There are many many differences, of which that is one, yes.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 7:37 PM on July 23, 2011


Well, this is reassuring:

Chief Engineer of Railways: China's high-speed rail safety is guaranteed
Posted:June 27,2011


Xinhua Beijing, June 27 (Reporter Qizhong Xi Yu Wei) Ministry of Railways chief engineer the # 27, said in an interview with reporters, through a large number of experimental data, can say with certainty that China's high-speed rail safety is fully guaranteed.

Remarkable speed rail will be officially opened on June 30 operation. For the people most recently reflected in some of the problems, such as the 'deceleration', 'security' and 'fare', etc., concerned departments of the Ministry of Railways 27 reporters interviewed together.

The #, said the Beijing-Shanghai high speed railway is 350 km per hour in accordance with technical standards for design and construction, and we made before the opening and operation of the dynamic acceptance, preliminary acceptance and safety assessment, are also in accordance with the standard speed of 350 km to carry out. Zaozhuang Beijing-Shanghai high-speed rail in the south west of Bengbu section of which 220 km within a comprehensive test experiments show that, CRH380 new generation of high-speed train traction power supply, communication signals and track and track down the foundation, etc(http://www.f-paper.com/)., are to meet our goals Security and stability requirements.

We also conducted a comprehensive testing high-speed train test experiment showed that the train detection systems are integrated to achieve the required detection capability. This is for us to further improve China's high-speed railway Technology system to provide a scientific basis. ..."
posted by hank at 8:09 PM on July 23, 2011


The Chinese stole high-speed rail technologies from the Japanese a number of years ago. Recently the Chinese are trying to patent those designs stolen from the Japanese.

Note that Japans high speed rail program, Shinkansen, which has a 45-year, nearly 7 billion-passenger history, there have been no passenger fatalities due to derailments or collisions.
posted by gen at 10:17 PM on July 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


If I was designing a bridge, I might want to take into consideration that the contract to build this bridge will be awarded to the lowest bidder, and so my design should be "idiot-proof."

This is a known problem to engineers, but it can be difficult to engineer around; quoth the bard:
The prudent text-books give it / In tables at the end
'The stress that shears a rivet / Or makes a tie-bar bend-
'What traffic wrecks macadam- / What concrete should endure-
but we, poor Sons of Adam / Have no such literature,
To warn us or make sure!
posted by hattifattener at 11:06 PM on July 23, 2011


As a train driver - well, okay, a trainee train driver - let me just say that schmod basically has it. We rely on the track circuits to automatically switch the signals to red as we pass into the next block section, and our wheels/axles short the circuit.

Terrible incident.
posted by Decani at 3:11 AM on July 24, 2011


Human life is cheap in China.

I hear this from a lot of people who criticize China, and it always makes me angry. There's plenty to criticize China about, surely. I worked in China for 3 years as a journalist, and I've seen the best and the worst. And if you make a more nuanced point about particular government policies or the way certain companies treat their workers or corruption and embezzlement that lead to shoddy construction or manufacturing that results in deaths, that's one thing. There are many in China who value profits or people, but that's not limited to China.

A blanket claim that "human life is cheap in China" maligns a billion or so people who are just like you or me, who donated time, money, and blood to the victims of the Sichuan earthquake (contemporaneous, pay-walled WSJ account: Chinese Open Hearts And Wallets to Victims) and who donated money and sent rescuers to Japan after the 2011 earthquake, in spite of long-standing national rivalry (there were some who celebrated the earthquake, just as their are some who celebrate any disaster), or who donated their life savings to charity or who developed a strain of rice that has helped fight famine worldwide. There are many more examples.

Chinese parents love their children just as much as American or British or Malawian or Mexican or Brazilian parents love their children.
posted by msbrauer at 7:52 AM on July 24, 2011 [5 favorites]


Chinese parents love their children just as much as American or British or Malawian or Mexican or Brazilian parents love their children.

I'm not talking about regular people, I'm talking about the state and the power structure.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:08 AM on July 24, 2011


Chinese parents love their children just as much as American or British or Malawian or Mexican or Brazilian parents love their children.

Or at least the one child they are legally allowed, (provided it is male...)
posted by bashos_frog at 11:40 AM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Death on the High Speed Rail | China Geeks
posted by gen at 3:42 PM on July 24, 2011


Chinese parents love their children just as much as American or British or Malawian or Mexican or Brazilian parents love their children.

Come on, this is a bit of a false dichotomy. Who was arguing otherwise? If you were a journalist in China, then you should know that the regulatory, legislative, environmental, human rights, judicial and police situation in China makes the statement "human life there is cheap" difficult to refute in a meaningful sense.

I'm the first to agree that there is a lot of ignorance, myth-making and gullibility in the west about China. But to say - in relation to a train crash that has killed several dozen people and is most likely the result of poor labour cutting corners - that human life is cheap there, really doesn't seem very outre to me.
posted by smoke at 4:16 PM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Train car involved in accident buried one day after collision
posted by KokuRyu at 6:05 PM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Given the logos on the carriages, the train that rear-ended the other one appears to be a CRH2 model manufactured on technology from Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd., while the one that was rear-ended is assumed to be a CRH1, based on technology from Canada's Bombardier Inc.

A public relations official of KHI said, "No comments can be made because the cause of the accident remains unknown."

A source at the company, however, said it has long been concerned about the Chinese approach of prioritizing speed at the expense of safety.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:57 AM on July 25, 2011


Good roundup of Chinese media coverage and propaganda about high speed rail development
posted by Bwithh at 12:07 PM on July 25, 2011


That culture operates without independent scrutiny, prioritizing grandiose visions — a Great Leap Forward mentality — over basic public concerns like safety and fiscal accountability.

Basically what I was trying to say earlier upthread.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:11 PM on July 25, 2011


Chinese netizens outraged over response to fatal bullet train crash (CNN)
posted by KatlaDragon at 4:11 AM on July 26, 2011



Train crash explanation raises more public doubts


Shasdot summery by hackingbear : The Xinhua news agency reports that a signaling equipment circuit design flaw and lack of safety alertness in railway management caused a high-speed train to ram into a stalled train near the city of Wenzhou in east China's Zhejiang Province on Saturday, leaving 40 people dead and 191 injured. A lightning strike triggered the malfunction, which resulted in a green alert light failing to turn red, leaving railway personnel unaware of the stalled train, the official said. The Beijing National Railway Research and Design Institute of Signal and Communication Co., which was responsible for designing and building the signaling system, has posted an apology letter on its website, offering condolences and promising to 'shoulder any due punishments that may result from the investigation.' Domestic media has raised more questions over the explanation. 'Why was such seriously flawed equipment in use for nearly two years without being detected? Why was it installed in as many as 76 rail stations across the country? Are there other problems with the railway apart from equipment flaws?'
posted by jeffburdges at 2:50 PM on July 29, 2011


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