Letter from China: The rail disaster that exposed the underside of the boom
October 19, 2012
On the morning of July 23, 2011, passengers hurried across Beijing South Station at the final call to board bullet train D301, heading south on the world’s largest, fastest, and newest high-speed railway, the Harmony Express. It was bound for Fuzhou, fourteen hundred miles away.
Beijing South Station is shaped like a flying saucer, its silvery vaulted ceiling illuminated by skylights. It contains as much steel as the Empire State Building and can handle two hundred and forty million people a year, thirty per cent more than New York’s Penn Station, the busiest stop in America. When Beijing South opened, in 2008, it was the largest station in Asia; then Shanghai stole the crown. In all, some three hundred new stations have been built or revitalized by China’s Railway Ministry, which has nearly as many employees as the civilian workforce of the United States government.
When the passengers for D301 reached the platform, they encountered a vehicle that looked less like a train than a wingless jet: a tube of aluminum alloy, a quarter of a mile from end to end, containing sixteen carriages, painted in high-gloss white with blue racing stripes. The guests were ushered aboard by female attendants in Pan Am-style pillbox hats and pencil skirts; each attendant, according to regulations, had to be at least five feet five inches tall, and was trained to smile with exactly eight teeth visible. A twenty-year-old college student named Zhu Ping took her seat, then texted her roommate that she was about to “fly” home on the rails. “Even my laptop is running faster than usual,” she wrote.
For the Cao family, in the sleeper section, riding in style was a mark of achievement. The parents had immigrated to Queens, New York, two decades earlier and worked their way up to stable jobs as custodians at LaGuardia Airport. They put two sons through college, became American citizens, and now found themselves back in China on a tour, posing for pictures in matching hats, standing ramrod straight beneath Mao’s portrait at Tiananmen Square. Their next stop would be a reunion with relatives in Fuzhou. This was the first vacation of their lives. Their son, Henry, who ran a camera-supply business in Colorado, was returning, for the first time, to a country that he had been raised to remember as poor.
Until now, China’s trains had always been a symbol of backwardness. More than a century ago, when the Empress Dowager was given a miniature engine to bear her about the Imperial City, she found the “fire cart” so insulting to the natural order that she banished it and insisted that her carriage continue to be dragged by eunuchs. Chairman Mao crisscrossed the countryside with tracks, partly for military use, but travel for ordinary people remained a misery of delayed, overcrowded trains nicknamed for the soot-stained color of the carriages: “green skins” were the slowest, “red skins” scarcely better. Even after Japan pioneered high-speed trains, in the nineteen-fifties, and Europe followed suit, China lagged behind, with what the state press bemoaned as two inches of track per person—“less than the length of a cigarette.”
In 2003, China’s Minister of Railways, Liu Zhijun, took charge of plans to build seventy-five hundred miles of high-speed railway—more than could be found in the rest of the world combined. For anyone with experience on Chinese trains, it was hard to picture. “Back in 1995, if you had told me where China would be today, I would have thought you were stark raving mad,” Richard Di Bona, a British transportation consultant in Hong Kong, told me recently. With a total investment of more than two hundred and fifty billion dollars, the undertaking was to be the world’s most expensive public-works project since President Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System, in the nineteen-fifties. To complete the first route by 2008, Minister Liu, whose ambition and flamboyance earned him the nickname Great Leap Liu, drove his crews and engineers to work in shifts around the clock, laying track, revising blueprints, and boring tunnels. “To achieve a great leap,” he liked to say, “a generation must be sacrificed.” (Some colleagues called him Lunatic Liu.) The state news service lionized an engineer named Xin Li, because he remained at his computer so long that he went partly blind in his left eye. (“I will keep working even without one eye,” he told a reporter.) When the first high-speed line débuted with a test run in June, 2008, it was seventy-five per cent over budget and relied heavily on German designs, but nobody dwelled on that during the ceremony. Cadres wept. When another line made its maiden run, Liu took a seat beside the conductor and said, “If anyone is going to die, I will be the first.”
That autumn, to help ward off the global recession, Chinese leaders more than doubled spending on high-speed rail and upped the target to ten thousand miles of track by 2020, the equivalent of building America’s first transcontinental route five times over. China prepared to export its railway technology to Iran, Venezuela, and Turkey. It charted a freight line through the mountains of Colombia that would challenge the Panama Canal, and it signed on to build the “pilgrim express,” carrying the faithful between Medina and Mecca. In January, 2011, President Obama cited China’s railway boom in his State of the Union address as evidence that “our infrastructure used to be the best, but our lead has slipped.” The next month, the governor of Florida, Rick Scott, blocked construction of America’s first high-speed train, by rejecting federal funds. Amtrak had unveiled a plan to reach speeds comparable to China’s by 2040.
Train D301 sped south and east across emerald-green paddies toward the coast. To Henry Cao, who was seated beside a window in the last compartment of the second car, the train seemed to float, describing long elegant turns and shuddering now and then with the whump of a train going in the opposite direction. As the sun set, a summer storm was gathering, and Henry watched lightning flicker across the clouds. He stretched out on the fold-down bed in his carriage. At his feet, his mother sat upright. She had short, wavy hair, and wore a blue-and-white striped shirt. She’d lived nearly half her life in America, but she retained the habits of a Chinese traveller, and she carried more than ten thousand dollars in cash, as well as gifts of jade jewelry, in a fanny pack. Her husband sat across from her, with his iPhone. He captured a wobbly snapshot of the digital speedometer at the end of the carriage; it showed the kilometre equivalent of 188 m.p.h.
Miles ahead, something unusual was happening. At 7:30 p.m., on the outskirts of the city of Wenzhou, lightning struck a heavy metal box beside the tracks. The box, the size of a washer-dryer, was part of a signal system that lets drivers and dispatchers know where trains are. Because tunnels block a radar signal, trains rely largely on hard-wired equipment like the box beside the track, which helps drivers and dispatchers talk to each other and controls a machinelike traffic signal, giving the drivers basic commands to stop and go. When lightning struck the box, it blew a fuse, which caused two catastrophic problems: it cut off communication and froze the signal on the color green…