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Economic engine should be roaring along safe rail

09:12, July 26, 2011

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By Li Hongmei

To many Chinese, having the world's fastest trains running on the world's longest high-speed rail is a pronounced symbol of China's modernization and its galloping economy.

But the bullet-train crash which happened Saturday plunges the whole nation into a chilly nightmare in which at least 43 people killed when a stalled train was struck from behind by another train, and the Chinese, still intoxicated by the pride of running fastest, have to wake up to a harsh reality - how to run safely?

The deaths mark the first major accident on the line that opened in a flurry of publicity and whose construction is a matter of national confidence. But the wreck seemed sure to raise public concerns about the safety of the train, "as swift as wind and as quick as lightening," as so dubbed; and inevitably add to public suspicions about the scale and speed to push the expansion of the high-speed rail.

Chinese have been proud of the fact that their country boasts the world's safest and most advanced high-speed trains. But three breakdowns in four days on the new Beijing-Shanghai rail link tarnishes the image of the high-speed line in public minds, and the shocking accident of the bullet-train will force everybody, not merely railway authorities, to pause and ponder what's wrong with China's railway system, which has for decades won people's conditioning as a cheap, safe and timely transport means.

Since the Beijing-Shanghai line opened, a year ahead of schedule, trains have stalled several times after losing power, causing long delays. Last week, a train on the Shanghai to Hangzhou line also came to a sudden stop, apparently because it was travelling through a "no-power zone."

Saturday's deadly accident took place when the train that lost power after being struck by lightning, then it was hit by another train, sending four compartments plunging from a viaduct and derailing another two.

Seeing this, it seems that some technical defects still exist in the train itself or, some in-built technology is far from mature, for instance, whether lightening arrester system or other safety equipment has undergone strict and adequate testing. There might also be chaos existing in rail management and operation.

True, for the majority of the Chinese, a cup of pure and innocent milk, an affordable house, and a train ticket to join the family at the travel peak during Spring Festival, are more important than, say, how fast they can travel. And nobody is willing to risk the life for the passion of roaring down the line at a breathtaking speed.

Be that as it may, it is also insane to rush the conclusion that high-speed trains must be heaved off the rail, as speed and the will to go fast should not be to blame. Also, people cannot give up eating for fear of choking. Just take the example of the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed rail, despite a couple of malfunctions, the rail cuts travel time between China's two major economic circles--Bohai Economic Rim and Yangtze River Delta--in half to five hours, greatly upgrading people's life quality besides boosting the local economy.

People killed on the Yong-Wen line deserve our tears and full respect. While the entire nation is mourning for the passengers, who are forever held up by the disaster that befell them unexpectedly at such an otherwise usual moment of their life, we will have to face up to the reality, no matter how bitter it is, and meanwhile turn grief into strength to embrace tomorrow.

"Anything you can build, China can build better" - This is one of the underlying messages behind China's high-speed rail network, and also a bugle call for a new battle. The higher the climb, the more painful the fall, as the old saying goes, but we have to stand up from where we tripped over, learn a lesson and go ahead.

It is believed and soon that the roaring train will take you to your destination at the speed of 350 km/h or higher, swift, safe and uncrumpled. And before long, China's rail boom will fully showcase the nation's increasing economic might with its unmatchable speed and safety.

The articles in this column represent the author's views only. They do not represent opinions of People's Daily or People's Daily Online.

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About this column

Li Hongmei, editor and columnist of PD Online.


Li HongLi Hong

After 19 years working for China Daily and its website, Li Hong moved to english.people.com.cn in March 2009.

Li has been a reporter and column writer, mainly on China's economy and politics.

He was graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University, and once studied in University of Hawaii and the Poynter Institute in Florida.

Dai MinJohn
Dai Min

John Milligan-Whyte and Dai Min, the executive producers and co-hosts of the Collaboration of Civilizations television series adapted by the eight books they wrote in the America-China Partnership Book Series published in English and Mandarin in 2009-2010 that created the "New School of America-China Relations." They founded the America-China Partnership Foundation and Forum in 2008 and the Center for American-China Partnership in 2005, which was recognized in 2009 as "the first American think tank to combine and integrate American and Chinese perspectives providing a complete answer for America and China's success in the 21st century."