Monday, July 25, 2011

On Japan and China's high speed rail

Since the high speed rail crash in China two days ago that killed 35 people and injured 200, the accident has received wide coverage on Japanese television.

It's a shame that the coverage has been so ... smug.

The Japanese consider themselves the world leaders in high speed rail. It is true that they have some things to boast about: the shinkansen, Japan's bullet train, is fast, efficient, safe and reliable.

But for some time Japan has, let us say, been a bit perturbed at the rapid spread of high-speed rail in their traditional rival, China. Chinese high speed rail is cheaper, faster, and built at a fraction of the cost. It also has 3 times the rail length of the shinkansen system in Japan.

And for the last two days the avalanche of smug has been overwhelming. The accident has led the nightly news both nights. The lack of safety measures that led to the accident in the Chinese rail system has been emphasised repeatedly. Experts have appeared to express dismay at the poor quality of the Chinese rail system. And tonight there was an extensive review of the Japanese shinkansen safety measures - the meticulousness, the complexity, the multiple layers of redundancy. The implication was obvious: Japanese high speed rail is safe, good and reliable; Chinese rail is dangerous.

I have also heard several times that the Chinese have built their high-speed rail system using German, Canadian and Japanese technology. The subtext here is that the Chinese have to steal technology from others, and that all the success of the Chinese system is due, at least in part, to Japan.

There was also widespread reporting of the 'investigation' into the Chinese accident, which has included burying derailed train carriages in the ground right next to the rails so that trains could run the next day, an action so unlikely in the Japanese context that upon hearing about it, several officials in the Japanese shinkansen department immediately died because their brains exploded.

Of course, the elephant in the room in terms of the history of rail safety in the two countries is the Amagasaki rail crash of 2005 when 106 passengers were killed and 555 were injured when a Japanese local train derailed. Not that this accident has been ignored in the nightly report: it was used to contrast the quality of post-crash investigation. Whereas with the Chinese crash there has been little or no effort to explain the crash or improve safety so far, after the Amagasaki derailment investigators closed the crash site for 25 days while they investigated everything they could, and the rail line itself wasn't opened for 55 days.

To me, however, this tells us more about the faults of the Japanese system that its strong points: the actual cause of the crash was known by the end of the day it happened. Congestion on the Fukichiyama line had reduced the leeway in the train's schedule to just 28 seconds. The train driver had overshot the platform in the previous station, losing valuable time, and in an effort to catch up had accelerated the train far past the safety margin of the curve it was on when it was derailed. This was known almost immediately, yet the line was closed for the next month as engineers took measurements...


Anonymous said...

=\ I don't really think the smugness is an issue when the facts are true. The Japanese may have been slower to fix their train crash, but has it crashed since? Taking care to detail is a good thing, one that most Chinese (I am one as well) could take note of.

On an unrelated note, what does your blog tagline mean? "I went too far." Just curious.

Captaincassowary said...

Thanks for the comment. Yes, you are right to say that the Japanese pay a lot of attention to small detail. Often that's a good thing, but not always. For example, the Japanese investigation of their crash was clearly excessive and costly when the cause was immediately known. And their 'attention to detail' was in fact an indirect cause of the crash, as the driver was desperate to be on time at the next station, causing him to put punctuality before safety.
Attention to detail is important; there just needs to be a balance.

As for my tagline, it refers to my ambivalence about Japan. I often imagine that it was a mistake to come here!

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