China's state Council, or Cabinet, has called a temporary halt to new rail projects in the aftermath of a fatal high-speed train collision on 23 July that has caused widespread public disquiet over the rapid pace of the country's railway expansion.
Safety checks are to be carried out on operational high-speed railways, system safety will be reevaluated on projects that have been approved but not yet begun.
However, the government has reiterated its commitment to developing high-speed lines, saying that quality will be its first priority.
Separately the Rail Ministry has ordered speed limits on high-speed lines to be cut by 50km/h, reducing the fastest lines to 300km/h. Ticket prices will be cut to compensate.
Forty people died and 191 were injured in the crash near Wenzhou, on a high-speed line connecting cities along the south-east coast. A train that had stalled on a viaduct after losing power in a lighting strike was hit from behind by another. Some coaches plunged from the bridge to the ground below.
The head of Shanghai Railway Bureau, An Lusheng, said the signalling system at Wenzhou South failed to turn the green light to red, after it was struck by lightning. He failed to explain why the second train was not warned that there was a stalled train in its path or whether the system had a back-up to automatically issue a warning to stop in such situations.
It was flatly denied that the system was a technology failure, even though the signalling designer, Beijing National Railway Research and Design Institute for Signalling and Communication, has accepted responsibility and posted a public apology on its website.
Lusheng said the issue now is to work to improve on the design of the system and implement state-of-the-art technology to ensure smooth operations.
China has also experienced problems on the brand-new Beijing-Shanghai high-speed line that opened on 30 June (E&T August 2011), with a train encountering a power outage 10 days after the service was launched. Two days later a train broke down on the route, and there were further incidents on 13 and 14 July.
A publicity official at the Ministry of Railways in Beijing, Chen Jin told E&T that China is not deterred by the fatal crash and the hiccups on the Beijing-Shanghai service but is determined to continue expanding its bullet train network.
China introduced high-speed trains in September 2007. Its network has already become the biggest in the world, having grown rapidly to 8,000km, and there are ambitious plans to reach 20,000km by 2020.
However, any hopes of exporting Chinese bullet trains to Europe have taken a hard knock with the Wenzhou crash and the other problems.
A Beijing-based analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity said the rapid rate at which China is moving with its high-speed network expansion raises concerns about rushed construction. “It is a clear indication this is to meet tight deadlines set by the authorities,” the analyst noted.
The massive project has also been tainted with allegations of corruption. In February the then Minister for Railways was fired for “serious disciplinary violations”.