China Rail Massacre: Accountability for Crash Begins

After an investigation into the cause of a high-speed train crash that killed 40 people, China yesterday expelled the former railways minister from the Communist Party.

Liu Zhijun had already been removed from the role as leader of the nation’s rail network. The expulsion was accompanied by formal charges of bribery and vice. He accepted “huge bribes” from businesswoman Ding Yuxin and oversaw “severe corruption in the railway system.”

As a next step, Liu Zhijun will face criminal proceedings. If found guilty it is likely he would face the death penalty. It is believed this pronouncement is part of the China’s clean-up campaign in advance of the autumn transition of leadership.

China’s high-speed rail network wasn’t supposed to get headlines like this. Starting with service between Beijing and Shanghai on began on 18 April 2008 the network has expanded dramatically.

High-speed rail in China  refers to any commercial train service in China with an average speed of 200 km/h or higher. By that measure, China has the world’s longest high-speed rail  network with about 9,676 km of routes in service as of June 2011, including 3,515 km of rail lines with top speeds of 486 km/h.  In 2010, the BBC reported that by 2012, China was expected to have more high-speed railway track than the rest of the world combined. (Source: Wikipedia) 

For the world, this high-speed rail network was supposed to demonstrate China’s technology and infrastructure might. This was a highly visible example of how much one nation can achieve with dedication and technological prowess. It was also an infrastructure boon for the nation’s construction industry, with heavy investments supporting a key industry during the global economic crisis.

In the rush to lay track, shortcuts were taken. Bribes were accepted and funds for construction were funneled off for personal gain. The Economist estimates Liu accepted Y1 billion of bribes ($152 million) in connection with railway construction projects. Then the unthinkable happened.

Train collision in China kills 43, injures 211

On July 23,  a high-speed train crashed into a stalled train in China’s eastern Zhejiang province. Hundreds were injured. Scores were killed. The world’s media arrived in force to cover the story.

Even the clean-up was dogged by problems. In the clean-up earth-movers shifted carriages, and as one rolled a corpse was thrown from the window. That was caught on camera. Some of the carriages were buried on-site two days after the accident, most likely to remove them from the view of the camera (after public outcry they were later exhumed).

Today China is dealing with the aftermath of a rushed investment program coupled with a culture of deceit. The rail network continues to expand even if trains are running at a slightly slower pace. And consumers have assurances that the last crash will be the…last crash.

It certainly is the end of the rail line for Liu Zhijun.

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