The tragedy of Wenzhou railway has triggered a series of assessments that go beyond national mourning and political responsibility. From the city symbol of private enterprise in the rich Zhejiang province (from which comes the majority of Chinese in Italy) comes a symbol of the reflection that the country has started. Despite a lack of precedents, one can witness now a public debate involving discrete positions. The main lessons that appear from the disaster that has caused 40 deaths and 200 injuries can be summarized as follows:
∙This is not a fatality
The country is accustomed to strong tragedies linked to natural disasters or to the impact of a modern society on a traditional landscape. They are “signs of the sky”, absorbed almost as inevitable, a price to pay for change. The railway accident of July 23 is instead the result rather from incompetence, corruption, and mismanagement, and, as such, it is not forgiven. This is the second fatal accident after the one in Shanghai in 2008, which caused 71 deaths. The management of high-speed system has also been punctuated by delays, cancellations, inquiries for the costs of construction and controversy for prices deemed too high. The Minister of Railways was dismissed last February, euphemistically on charges of “disciplinary violations”. The Beijing-Shanghai line – 1320 km proudly inaugurated on 1st July to coincide with the 90th birthday of the CCP – has already recorded a number of traffic arrests. We must not forget that in a few years China has built the largest network of high-speed railway in the world. However, the costs both in terms of human lives and economic results are ruthless. In comparison, Japan had no fatal accident in 47 years of operation of its railway system;
∙There are precise technical and decision-making responsibilities
The trains have experienced a collision on a viaduct. One of the two was blocked by a violent storm; the other unfortunately has not been stopped by traffic lights that signalled a green light. The error has been recognized by the Beijing National Research and Design Institute of Railway Signals and Communications, which designed and built the railway signalling equipment. This is the main safety-related aspect and it denotes a striking omission. Experts know that to place the right technology is not enough. It must be integrated it into a system where the trains and ground facilities are able to communicate. In theory, every train should know how much “movement authority” is allowed, even assuming that the driver loses control of the train. This integrated system is called ERTMS – European Rail Traffic Management System / European Train Control System – and would have to be installed in the 2 Chinese trains. Its indispensability makes errors even more severe.
∙Acquiring technology is not sufficient
In the struggle against time to build the high-speed network, Beijing has acquired engineering capabilities by industry giants such as Kawasaki, Siemens, Alstom, Bombardier. Adapting to the Chinese reality has proved slow and sometimes fallacious. The policy of “technology importation, digestive absorption, independent re-innovation and localisation” (the official formula of the operation) has clashed with the inexperience, the opacity, the temptation to take shortcuts towards modernity and enrichment. To travel safely at 300 km/h is more complex than producing low-cost consumer goods.
∙Tragedies cannot be hidden
On two Twitter-like micro blogs, 26 million messages about the accident were posted. On them, as well as on social networks, discontent and open criticism were dominant. The questions concern the price to pay for a modern country, in a context where pre-emptive censorship is not effective. Merciless criticism is fuelled by questions and personal stories that have shaken public opinion. The cars involved were immediately removed and then burned, thus hiding the evidence that could have been exploited through investigation. In addition, after rescue workers said that there were no survivors, a little 2-year-old girl was found alive, after 21 hours spent beside the bodies of her parents.
∙Also the economy was hit
Despite assurances from the government that it will keep going with the high-speed network, the stocks of companies involved in the rail industry have immediately dropped. Fears of a reduction in public spending have prevailed on the expected commitment of 4 billion Euros in the five-year plan 2011-2015. The value of the shares of China South Locomotive and Rolling Stock Corp. (a manufacturer of the trains involved in the incident) plummeted by 16% at the Stock Exchange of Hong Kong, while that of China Northern Locomotive – another industry giant – dropped by 6.5% on Shanghai Stock Exchange. Simultaneously, thanks to antagonism likely dictated by the emotions, prices of airlines’ securities rose, in anticipation of additional revenues due to the growth of the sector at the expense of rail transport;
∙The “Made in China” reputation has been tarnished. The Chinese railway companies advertised themselves in recent years as economic and reliable solutions. Most customers are located in developing countries, mainly in Africa, but also California is considering whether to rely upon Chinese companies to build a line. Now, a downsizing of the orders is inevitable. Poor quality for marginal can be accepted for marginal purchases, not for those involving personal safety, environmental and food industries. China, therefore, with this incident seems to frustrate previous efforts to act as a credible counterpart, when trying to get rid of its image of a producer of affordable but unsophisticated goods.
Disaster management requires more skills and flexibility. When facing unexpected calamities, local authorities – political, judicial and police alike – tend to show their most authoritarian and conservative attitude. They attempt to cover up what is known to all. Interventions are unnecessarily harassing, trying to focus public attention on acts of heroism rather than responsibilities. Concerned about stability, Beijing finds a shelter in control, at a time when it is not as feasible as in the past. Public outrage is recognized in some instances, neglected in others. Managers ultimately responsible for the disaster were fired while trying to silence the relatives of the victims with monetary compensation. The result is a confused mixture that irritates even more a public opinion already puzzled and bewildered.