China’s enthusiasm for high-speed rail stalls

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BEIJING — China’s infatuation with high-speed rail soured at bullet train velocity.

Six months ago, the rail network was a success symbol and the basis of a planned high-tech export industry. But after a July crash that killed 40 people, Beijing has suspended new construction and is recalling problem-plagued trains, raising questions about the future of such prestige projects.

It was an extraordinary reversal for a project that once enjoyed political status on a level with China’s manned space program.

High-speed rail has been, along with nuclear power, among an array of areas where critics warn that breakneck, government-driven development might be jeopardizing public safety and adding to financial risks.

In nuclear power, Beijing said earlier this year that it would press ahead with its rapid expansion of China’s industry despite Japan’s Fukushima disaster.

But with bullet trains, the July 23 collision combined with experts’ warnings about costs and dangers to persuade Beijing to take the rare step of scaling back a major project — a move that might have repercussions in other fields and could affect the appeal of Chinese technology abroad.

“If they are taking one step back to think again about these railway programs, more broadly it should have an impact on their overall planning of such projects,” said Xianfang Ren, chief China economist for IHS Global Insight.

Policymakers are deciding China needs to “rectify the excesses” of its system and slow an unsustainably fast expansion, Ren said in a report. “It is quite clear now that stepping on the brake is the only viable policy option.”

The train disaster has been a high-profile illustration of the weaknesses of government-led development, though no one expects the ruling Communist Party to change what many see as the root problem — its pervasive role in the economy, technology and industry.

In economics, the ruling party has traded most elements of central planning for market-style reforms. But in science, it still sees direct government involvement as essential to achieving its goal of transforming China from a nation of farmers and factory workers into a prosperous creator of technology.

The government has issued development plans for fields from clean energy to computers and has promised money for research and other support.

That strategy has led to complaints that decision-making is politicized, authorities ignore environmental and other costs and public money is wasted on dubious projects such as the development of a Chinese mobile phone standard that attracted few users abroad.

“The government plays a leading role in all these public projects, which should not really be the case,” said Zhao Jian, a railway expert at Beijing Jiaotong University and one of the most prominent critics of high-speed rail plans.

Even before the July crash, the bullet train was a target of critics who said it was dangerously fast and too expensive for a society where the poor majority need more low-cost transportation, not record-setting speeds.

Warnings by Zhao and other experts prompted Beijing to cut the top speed in April from 350 kph (220 mph) to 300 kph (190 mph).

This week, the government announced another speed reduction for second-tier trains and said it was launching a nationwide safety inspection. On Friday, the manufacturer of bullet trains used on the new Beijing-Shanghai line recalled 54 trains following repeated delays blamed on equipment failures.

Those changes solve immediate problems but fail to get at “deeper trouble,” Zhao said.

“I don’t see any signs that the government is doing anything to expand this overhaul to other areas or even reshape its development pattern,” he said.

In nuclear power, Beijing’s rapid expansion of its industry, both to curb reliance on fossil fuels and to support development of Chinese equipment manufacturers, has prompted similar warnings that it is moving too fast and might jeopardize public safety.

China has 13 nuclear reactors and 28 more under construction, which critics say is causing a shortage of qualified technicians and equipment.

An official of an industry group was quoted by state media in March as saying the Communist Party’s latest five-year plan shifts from “energetic development” to “safe and highly efficient development,” but the government has yet to release details.

Support for the bullet train began to erode in February after its main official booster, then-railway minister Liu Zhijun, was dismissed amid a graft probe.

State media, normally cheerleaders for the government, have begun reporting on the bullet train’s excesses in a sign that official sentiment is turning against it.

On Friday, state broadcaster China Central Television showed scenes of an apartment complex in the eastern province of Anhui over which a bullet train viaduct was built on huge concrete pillars. Residents were shown complaining about the noise of passing trains and damage to property values.

China has 13 high-speed railways in operation, with 26 under construction and 23 more planned. Earlier plans called for expanding the network to 10,000 miles (16,000 kilometers) of track by 2020, though their current status is unclear.

Beijing also is pushing for its train manufacturers and builders of high-speed lines to export. They have sold trains to Malaysia and are involved in building systems in Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Chinese contractors want to bid for work on a planned California high-speed line, though it might be harder to woo buyers who see China’s government has lost faith in its own system.

Global Insight’s Ren said she sees no sign the government might scale back its export plans, which are a core part of its technology development strategy.

“The only thing they are going to rectify is the domestic buildout of their infrastructure,” she said. “I think they still will push for more exports of advanced manufactured goods such as these railway systems.”

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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