Train Recall Falls Short

Experts say additional models of China’s bullet trains may suffer from design flaws.
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A CRH380BL bullet train sits in Beijing's south railway station, Aug. 11, 2011.
A CRH380BL bullet train sits in Beijing's south railway station, Aug. 11, 2011.

China’s recall of more than 50 bullet trains from its high-speed railway between Beijing and Shanghai is not far-reaching enough and should include more models, according to experts.

The recall was ordered after the train’s manufacturer, state-owned China CNR Corp, announced flaws in its design on Friday, marking the latest setback for the country’s rail industry.

On Wednesday, China’s central government said it would suspend new rail projects and slow the top speeds of existing trains in the aftermath of a deadly collision of two bullet trains in the southeastern city of Wenzhou last month.

Professor Xie Tian of the University of South Carolina applauded the decision to recall the 54 CRH380BL bullet trains, but said the manufacturer’s other models should also be investigated.

“They only recalled one type of train. How do we know that the others don't have problems too?” he said.

“I think there should be more models included in the recall process.”

Xie said CNR Corp likely lacks the quality controls in place at other more internationally respected vehicle manufacturers.

“Why does Toyota have [excellent] quality? They have a good set of rules for quality control,” he said.

“Other auto manufacturers have a hard time copying their quality, even if they want to, because Toyota has its own set of rules for quality control—and they may be more strict.”

A spokesman for CNR Corp. told Agence France-Presse earlier this week that the trains affected were based on technology used in another model made in partnership with the German technology giant Siemens.

Gong Shujia, a professor from George Mason University in Virginia, near Washington, said it is unlikely that CNR Corp. had carried out sufficient testing of the models it produced.

“Based on the decision to recall one of the models, it suggests that they didn’t conduct enough tests. There is a high possibility that they didn’t with the other models either,” he said.

Gong said recent scandals in China’s railway industry suggest that corruption had played a part in the decision to put the trains into service without proper quality assurance.

“I assume there is a lot of corruption involved. For example, [former deputy chief engineer of China's railways] Zhang Shuguang was punished, and later [the government] found that he had embezzled U.S. $2.8 billion. There must be some kickbacks involved here.”

Recall ordered

CNR Corp issued a statement to the Shanghai stock exchange Friday saying it was “recalling 54 CRH380BL bullet trains produced by our subsidiaries that are already in operation to systematically analyze causes of flaws.”

The statement, approved by the ministry of railways, said the recall would allow for an “overhaul to ensure [the] quality and safety” of the trains running on the U.S. $33 billion line, which went into operation on June 30.

Nearly one-quarter of the services on the new line will be affected, adding to a number of delays and power cuts that have already plagued the system since its launch.

Beijing had been steaming ahead with the expansion of China’s high-speed railway system, but the bullet train collision in July put the brakes on its ambitious plans to increase the network.

Forty people died in the July 23 disaster when a high-speed train plowed into the back of a stationary train near Wenzhou. Local residents and netizens criticized the government’s slow response in reacting to the crash, which officials blamed on design flaws in signaling equipment.

Wednesday’s decision by the State Council to halt all new railway construction disrupted plans to expand the world’s largest high-speed system of 8,358 kilometers (5,200 miles) at the end of 2010 to 13,000 kilometers (8,100 miles) by 2012 and 16,000 kilometers (10,000 miles) by 2020.

The government also said it would reduce the speeds of trains running on new high-speed lines and make safety checks mandatory on all existing lines as well as those under construction.

Design flaw

China CNR Corp said earlier this week that the railway ministry had ordered it to halt shipments of the CRH380BL bullet train after problems, which it said were related to an automatic braking system, caused delays on the Beijing-Shanghai link.

It said sensors installed in the trains by builder Changchun Railway Vehicles Co. send alerts to automatically slow them down.

CNR board chairman Cui Dianguo told the officials Xinhua news agency that the company would begin recalling the trains on Aug. 16 and would share the associated costs with its suppliers, although he did not provide the names of the companies.

An investigation earlier this year uncovered rampant corruption in China’s Ministry of Railways which led to the removal of longtime minister Liu Zhijun in February for what state media reported as “severe violations of discipline.”

In March, allegations surfaced of bribery, illegal contracts, and sexual liaisons in the ministry’s dealings, and an engineer in charge of nationwide research and development was removed, further embattling an agency already reeling from criticism over high ticket prices and below average service.

The widening scandal left detractors questioning the scope of Beijing’s plans to build a network of domestic and international high-speed railways.

Reported by RFA’s Mandarin service. Translated by Jia Yuan. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.





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