What’s the Deal With High Speed Train Crashes?

Hello all!

Welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal?”   The blog that discusses current events in a stuffy and nasal voice, while lubricating the conversation with dry humor.  In this week’s blog, China finds out how fast is too fast, and the world reacts to the impact of the recent events.

On July 23rd, a high speed train on the Beijing – Shanghai line waited patiently for a signal to turn green so the train could resume its top speed when the train behind rammed into the stationary cars causing both trains to derail and killing 40 people whilst injuring hundreds of others.

It went so fast, it's gone perpendicular

The crash comes 6 months after the completion of the newest high speed rail system; a source of Chinese national pride that had investors and economists re-adjusting their monocles.  For a system that was supposed to rival the Euro and Japanese high speed lines, the July crash was devastating and still has Chinese officials (and Chinese citizens) questioning their system and whether         

  1. The rail system work was shoddy and done with haste
  2. The Trains top speed was too fast
  3. The Government’s pervasive role in industry projects is detrimental

It made perfect sense for China to complete the rail line as quickly as possible with high levels of investments in infrastructure and business.  The rail would have improved  passenger transportation and travel so that China’s major cities would be connected on a rapid level.  Let’s take a look though at Europe’s high speed rail and Japan’s high speed rail to find out how China’s went wrong, and if the problems are curable.

How fast can you get from Osaka to Tokyo?

Japan was the pioneer in widespread HSR use in the world because it became totally invested in it as the mode of transport following WW2, and made a great deal of practical sense.  The small size of the country along with significant congestion from automobiles made rail travel the most efficient means of transport.  The key in Japan was that the entire country invested themselves behind rail travel and was able to make it the fastest and most efficient in the world.  Without the ability to transport oil easily to the island, and needing a way to transport its people in a heavily dense population, the bullet train became the answer.  Despite trains with top speeds at 190mph, there have been no major train accidents, even with this years’ earthquake.  The train system was able to stop without any injuries or accidents, and was able to return to normal service after the disaster.

In Europe, the high speed rail idea was born in Germany in 1903, when an electric tram car took off and sped away down the track at 126 mph (203 km/hr), showing that electric high speed rail was the way of the future.  Several factors contributed to Europe’s re-introduction of the high speed rail idea in the mid 20th century, namely: higher oil prices, environmental interests, and traffic congestion in Europe’s crowded space.  The UK, France, Germany, and Spain led the way for financing and completing rail systems that encompassed the major urban areas and made the rail system an affordable and convenient method of traveling.  Spain’s ambitious plan to have every Spaniard live within 50km of a HSR train station really brought investments in and committed the Spanish government in the 1990s to connect its population.

A high speed game of connect the dots

Now, Europe is accessible by  train nearly everywhere, and more projects are popping up left and right in East. Europe.  It’s a strategic advantage that reduces car traffic, gives affordable access to any country, and is relatively safe.  On the subject of safety…

The infrastructure that Europe laid down HSR had already been in place and top speeds were low enough that new HSR tracks could be built in step to accommodate the new trains.  The first trains built on a high speed rail system topped at the low 200’s (kmh) and the system was not built very quickly, but over a long period of time, much of which came after the initial success and popularity of the lines and the benefits to business.

High Speed Rail in China is relatively new beginning in the mid 1990s, and has risen in capacity and speed since then.  It became the longest HSR system in the world in the last few years, and looks to grown even larger with an investment of $451 billion over the next 5 years.  Changes are stalled right now because of the crash, because officials are concerned over safety measures.  Since one of the main problems was a malfunction from losing power from a lightning strike, fixing safety measures is the main priority, but that leads us to another problem that strikes at a much larger issue:  Was the government run program implemented too fast?  Was their haste the reason behind the disaster?

My gut reaction is, especially after hearing the blogging universe in China explode in anger at the government’s ineptitude, that the government didn’t take the proper precautions.  After all, wouldn’t a privately funded rail program check very thoroughly because they are dependent on a profit?, and a disaster would completely ruin their business?   Wasn’t the government trying to excel the infrastructure of China too fast to match their expanding investments and economic growth?  Just some thoughts…

Investin' in the ol' iron horse is gold!!

Well, it isn’t super-necessary to pick apart this unfortunate event, because it was more of a natural disaster than man made.  The solution is to find precautions so that “man made” can outwit nature.  High Speed Rail is a good idea in any country to prevent higher levels of pollution/smog, to transport people very effectively/efficiently, and raise the speed of business.  It’s evident that in China, HSR will be vital to rocketing the speed of business and we may see a meteoric rise in their economy in tandem with their new infrastructure, similar to what we saw in Japan during the 1960s and 70s.

Another blog in the books!  Hope you enjoyed it and I look forward to filling you in on world events in the future (newspapers are for old people)

Your Faithful Historian,

Eric G. Prileson


About eprileson

I am a historian and writer who wants to bring to light current events through a historical perspective. It is difficult to understand today's current events without having a grasp of what has occurred before. This is a running thread to help keep people informed about the present and remind everyone to not forget their past. Enjoy and please comment!
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