Progress To Problem: China's High-Speed Trains Nearly two months after a collision on China's high-speed-rail network killed 40 people, the government is still investigating why it happened. But critics blame the haste with which the network was built, corruption and a disregard for human life.
NPR logo

From Progress To Problem: China's High-Speed Trains

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
From Progress To Problem: China's High-Speed Trains

From Progress To Problem: China's High-Speed Trains

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

In China, government investigators are compiling a report on a controversial high-speed train crash almost two months ago. Forty people died in the accident. So far, investigators have blamed lightning strikes, a software signaling glitch and human error.

But as NPR's Louisa Lim reports, evidence is emerging that basic safety was ignored in the rush to build this politically symbolic high-speed network.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Express Train...

LOUISA LIM: China's high-speed trains were supposed to be a gleaming testament to the country's progress and modernity. Instead, since the deadly accident, they've come to symbolize what's wrong with China's warp-speed development. For one thing, a blithe contempt for human life. That attitude seems to have trickled down to some of the passengers on a recent high-speed train journey, among them salesman Jin Zhao'an.

JIN ZHAO: (Through Translator) Forty deaths don't mean our trains are no good. Developed countries have had many years of experience operating these trains, so they can avoid risks. If this accident hadn't happened, we wouldn't have known the risks, right? It's just a small, small episode in our country's development.

LIM: Since the accident, 54 bullet trains have been recalled and new projects halted. Safety checks have been instituted, and the speed limit reduced across the whole network to 186 miles per hour. But the train we travelled on consistently broke that speed limit, travelling as fast as 194 miles per hour. The Railway Ministry refused to comment or accept interview requests.

I'm now in Nanjing South station in a cavernous waiting hall, the biggest railway station in Asia. It's newly built at a cost of $780 million. Just two weeks after the station opened, heavy rain leaked through the roof, causing parts of the building to subside into the ground. Of course, it's caused more questions to be asked about the quality of the infrastructure along the high-speed rail network.

Ren Xianfeng is a senior analyst at IHS Global Insight in Beijing. She says the sacking of Railways Minister Liu Zhijun in February for corruption raised a red flag.

REN XIANFENG: So with this speed of construction, there are a couple of issues. First is the quality of the project and the second thing is corruption. It's a legitimate concern about the safety. How safely have they built their railway system, because so much money has been siphoned off to the private pockets.

LIM: I've now come about 100 miles to a place called Shuangdun in Anhui Province. And here is concrete proof, if any was needed, of the haste with which the high-speed rail was constructed and the seeming disregard for safety. I'm standing in a housing development, which was just built two years ago. The viaduct which carries the high-speed trains has just been built in the past year. It cuts right through this development and it skims the roofs of the buildings of the development.

SUN MIANKOU: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: I only found out when they started building the viaduct columns, says Sun Miankou. No one told us what was happening.

She helped buy an apartment here for her brother and his new wife. But since the Wenzhou train crash, she's been haunted by photos of a train carriage hanging from a 60-foot viaduct. If that were to happen here, that carriage would plough straight into her block.

MIANKOU: (Through translator) Of course I'm scared. I don't want to live here. I don't even dare sleep here. Two generations of my family worked the land to afford this apartment, and now the high-speed rail has been built right on top of it. I'm very worried.


LIM: Construction of the housing complex had already finished when the authorities decided to build the high-speed line right overhead. The buildings directly under the train line will be demolished. But around half of the 84 households affected are refusing to accept compensation, set at around $640 per square meter. They say it's inadequate.

Resident Chen Changfeng suspects corruption.

CHEN CHANGFENG: (Through translator) I don't understand how the government got approval to build the train line here, even though we hadn't agreed to move. Our government is advocating putting people first and a harmonious society. But in practice, they place more importance on building the high-speed rail than on us people.

LIM: Many are now asking if this accident could and should herald the end of the Great Leap Forward mentality, where corners are cut to hit political targets. For the government, this accident has led to a credibility crisis. But there's economic fallout too: heavily-indebted rail firms may face cash flow shortages. And for overseas buyers, this deadly accident makes China's high-speed rail technology a high-risk proposition.

And so, China's headlong rush to show itself to be a high-tech superpower may just have ended up proving the opposite.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.