Skills shortages add to China’s rail worries

19 October 2011
By William Dennis
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A recent spate of safety incidents on China’s railways have been blamed on human error.

A recent spate of safety incidents on China’s railways have been blamed on human error.

Credit: Reuters, Corbis

Engineers in China have raised concerns about a lack of qualified personnel on the nation’s network to initiate the necessary safety procedures during signal failures.

The problem was evident in the 23 July high-speed train (HST) collision near Wenzhou and the subway train collision in Shanghai on 27 September. In both cases rail staff responsible for controlling the trains failed to step in to stop all movements after signals failed.

The signalling equipment on both lines was supplied by Casco, a joint venture between the French transport and power giant Alstom and China Railway Signal & Communication Corp.

In the case of the Wenzhou crash, the signalling system was struck by lightning, while Alstom blamed the Shanghai accident on a power outage that interrupted the system. Some 43 people perished in HST crash while 271 were injured in the subway accident.

A potential collision on the same Shanghai subway line had previously been averted on 28 July when officials had to step in to redirect a train that was running in the wrong direction. The rail worker responsible for the track was not at his position.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Railways (MOR) in Beijing, Zheng Gubao, denied there was a shortage of qualified rail staff or that the government was rushing to build subway networks.

“The necessary training is provided for all rail personnel but there is nothing we could do when the signalling system failed,” Zheng said. He declined to comment when asked whether people hired for posts on the railway have appropriate qualifications.

Ma Jin, senior design engineer at the China Academy of Railway Sciences, said there will be an enormous demand for skilled workers due to the sheer scale of projects expected to resume when the moratorium imposed after the Wenzhou crash is lifted.

“The situation is expected to worsen as the current batch of workers get older and technology advances,” Ma noted, adding that although training is provided by the rail companies, the shortage of skilled staff cannot be addressed quickly.

She acknowledged that the two crashes should be a wake-up call for the rail authorities and that a concerted effort is needed to ensure that the correct training is provided for all personnel and an enhanced system put in place to prevent another accident.

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