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Rail rivalry outcome hinges on speed vs. safety

by Mark Schreiber

Following the July 23 collision of two high-speed trains in Wenzhou City, Zhejiang Province — blamed on faulty signaling equipment — that killed at least 39 passengers and injured over 200, Japan’s media, to their credit, suppressed any obvious overtones of shadenfreude. But in the weeks before the accident, Chinese bullet trains were already a topic of controversy in the media.

Flash’s issue of Aug. 2, which went on sale July 19, ran a piece by Yomiuri TV newscaster Jiro Shinbo with a headline denouncing China as a “shameless nation that does whatever it wishes (in the spheres of) military, politics and economics.”

I was about to flip the page, but paused at the sight of two photos on the upper left side of the spread. The top showed China’s streamlined CRH380A train — used for high-speed rail service between Shanghai and Beijing, reducing travel time between China’s two major cities by less than half, to 4 hours 48 minutes — that was just initiated on June 30. Immediately below was a photo of the “Hayate” express — built by Kawasaki Heavy Industries — that runs on the Tohoku Shinkansen. Except for differences in the paint trim, the two might have rolled off the same line.

“As long as Chinese pay for the technology provided by Japanese companies, I’ve got no problem,” Shinbo writes. What infuriates him was that the manufacturer, a consortium named the China South Locomotive and Rolling Stock Corp (CSR) is claiming that the CRH380A incorporates its own home-grown technology, which has led it to apply for 21 patents in the United States, Brazil, Russia, the EU and — if you can believe the chutzpa — Japan.

A sidebar notes that since 2003, Chinese firms have applied for a total of 1,902 rail-related patents, of which 1,421 have been issued and the remaining 481 are undergoing review.

A spokesperson for Kawasaki Heavy Industries, which has supplied technology to CSR, as have Canadian, French and German companies, was quoted by Flash as saying the company is “considering measures, including legal action” if it determines its patents have been infringed upon.

Shinbo’s rant was largely echoed in Shukan Taishu (Aug. 8), which went on sale July 25, meaning it was also written before the accident at Wenzhou.

In an interview earlier this month, a spokesperson for the Chinese railways had boasted in a domestic publication, “Many of the technologies in China’s railways are far superior to Japan’s.”

Oh really? counters the magazine, which then proceeds to make some comparisons. Author and critic Masahiro Miyazaki had already ridden the train from Shanghai to Beijing and conceded it was indeed comfortable. “And at an average speed of 300 km/h, it’s also faster than Japan’s Shinkansen,” he adds.

“But this was achieved by building it in a straight line,” Miyazaki continues. “The 24 stations are situated like uninhabited islands in the middle of nowhere. China is able to get this done thanks to its dictatorial government. Anything that blocked the route of the train was simply removed and the land appropriated.”

An unnamed international journalist then raises the issue of safety, pointing out that in 2010 an accident had occurred on the Ning-Hang line linking Nanjing with Hangzhou, possibly due to slipshod construction. “Considering that the 1,318 km of the Shanghai-Beijing line were completed in just three years, lots of questions remain over safety,” he warns.

Due in part to the comparatively higher price of tickets (about ¥ 7,000 for second-class, one-way), seats on the high-speed trains have been booked to only around 20 percent of capacity, which suggests the line will operate in the red. (Japan’s first Shinkansen, the New Tokaido Line, was in the black after three years and completely paid for within seven.)

But does Japan, whose big two train manufacturers (Kawasaki and Hitachi) hold a combined 6 percent of the worldwide market share in high-speed trains, still have a chance in the marketing battle for high-speed railways? Not the way things are going, thinks Miyazaki.

“Whether automobiles or IT equipment, China need only buy one of anything and after that they can just copy it, claim that they developed it themselves, and patent it in their own country,” he frowns. “If things continue like this, Japan can’t emerge as a winner.”

Business magazine Shukan Diamond (July 30), which went on sale July 25, carried a 42-page cover story titled “World’s Strongest! Can the Shinkansen clear the way to Japan’s future?”

Shukan Diamond focuses mainly on the financial health of the Shinkansen lines in Japan, and concludes they’re putting up a good battle against domestic airlines and intercity bus services. While the report covers some new technologies related to higher speed and greater passenger comfort, strangely, the term anzensei (safety) doesn’t even appear until the article’s 6th page, and is barely touched on after that.

Thanks to meticulous maintenance of the rails and the onboard ATC system that serves as their “brain,” Shinkansen trains have been fortunate in not incurring a single fatality due to collision or derailment since the Tokyo-Osaka service began in October 1964. Diamond’s devoting scant coverage to safety in such an extensive article may suggest that Japan’s public, and media, had come to take the Shinkansen’s 47-year safety record for granted. After the tragedy in Wenzhou, it will be interesting to see how this point of view changes.