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China's high-speed train overhaul

By Huang Jingjing (Global Times)

10:06, August 12, 2011

Railway stations across China have shortened the pre-sale period for tickets in preparation for an upcoming service readjustment following the State Council's order Wednesday to slow down high-speed trains.

Most stations shortened the pre-sale period from 15 days to just four or five days. Authorities suspended ticket sales for all high-speed trains starting from Shanghai to Beijing, Nanjing and Hangzhou after August 15.

The Ministry of Railways (MOR) released a statement Thursday saying that the ministry is revamping timetables and train arrangements of all high-speed rails, which will take effect later this month.

"The high-speed services linking Beijing and Tianjin, Shanghai and Hangzhou will have a 50 kilometer per hour (kph) speed cut to 300 kph. Tickets prices will drop by an average of 5 percent. The number of trains running on the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed railway will be reduced to 66 pairs from the current 88," the statement said.

The latest development came after a State Council meeting on Wednesday, during which Premier Wen Jiabao ordered railway authorities to launch thorough safety checks on all high-speed railways either in operation or under construction, and to cut down the speed of the services.

The meeting also concluded that the government will halt approval of new railway projects and will ramp up investment to improve operational safety of high-speed trains.

"China will unswervingly continue its development of high-speed railways," the State Council said, stressing that quality will be the first priority.

According to Sheng Guangzu, minister of railways, high-speed trains running at 350 kph and 250 kph will all see their speeds cut by a 50 kph. Bullet trains running at 200 kph will be slowed to 160 kph. Ticket prices will be trimmed accordingly.

The slowdown campaign would shorten China's operational high-speed rail lines from the current 9,676 kilometers to about 6,000 kilometers, Beijing Daily reported.

Wen's order came during the investigation into a bullet train crash in Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province on July 23 that killed at least 40 people.

"Running a train at its design speed is a mistake," railway expert Wang Mengshu with the Beijing Jiaotong University, who is also a member of the team investigating the Wenzhou crash, told the Global Times.

"A 20 percent speed cut will considerably reduce the likelihood of mechanical failure or human error that could cause accidents," Wang said, adding that the slowdown would not greatly affect travel.

However, some voiced concerns over the readjustment's impact on the railway industry.

"High-speed railways will lose their competitiveness against airlines after the speed cut. That would be bad news for the MOR, which is already in huge debt, and for industries participating in the project," a source from the railway authorities told the 21st Century Business Herald.

The Xinhua News Agency reported Thursday that China North Locomotive and Rolling Stock, one of the country's two leading train manufacturers, has been asked by the MOR to temporarily stop deliveries.

The company said an automatic safety system installed in its CRH380 trains had been working improperly, leading to delays.

The CNR Changchun Railway Vehicles Co, which is expected to manufacture 112 CRH380BL trains for the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed railway, has also suspended delivery of the train and launched a technical overhaul after a string of breakdowns.
In a commentary, Xinhua noted that despite the potential losses, safety must override all other considerations.

The Economic Observer newspaper commented that in addition to carrying out safety inspections and implementing speed cuts, the government also needs to make progress in reforming the railway system.

"China's railway system has been running under a planned economy model, in which government functions are mixed up with enterprise management, thus lacking supervision and transparency," the paper said.

"Improved safety checks and slower speeds may help for a while, but separating government functions from enterprise management is the fundamental solution to problems in the railway system," the commentary said.

According to a development plan issued by the MOR a year ago, railways in China would reach 120,000 kilometers by 2020, including more than 16,000 kilometers of high-speed rail lines.

Wang said despite the recent setbacks, China still needs to push forward railway development to meet its huge transportation needs.

"It would be wrong to think China has gone too far with its railway program. Considering the country's vast floating population and economic ambition, railway is still the number one choice," Wang said.

The MOR recently issued 20 billion yuan ($3.1 billion) of super short-term commercial papers with a maturity of 90 days to improve liquidity.

Huang Shaojie, Zheng Yi and Xinhua contributed to this story


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