In April I wrote a relatively positive entry about my ride on the high-speed train from Hangzhou to Shanghai. I noted the worries of some on the train about what would happen in the event of an accident, but concluded an accident would be unlikely because the trains are on raised tracks and face no other traffic.
Except other trains. I didn't think of that, and it appears Chinese officials didn't think of it -- or at least plan for the various contingencies that could involve multiple trains.
The accident speaks volumes about how China manages risk, and reminds me of a terrific article (Download Suttmeier Risk AP 2008) from 2008 by Pete Suttmeier entitled, "The 'Sixth Modernization'?: China, Safety, and the Management of Risks," in the July 2008 issue of Asia Policy, published by the National Bureau of Asian Research. Pete concludes that China regularly fails to manage risk effectively because doing so requires a clear commitment to safety from the very top and complex systems, both of which encourage built-it system redundancy, a culture of safety, and mechanisms for operational learning.
China's airline system was originally wracked by poor safety and accidents, but high-level attention and foreign expertise helped promote change. Having airlines managed by a single bureaucracy, CAAC, also helped immensely. By contrast, there are over a dozen agencies that have a hand in regulating food and the environment, and that's just at the national level.
If Pete is correct, then the extent of attention from the leadership and the public and the existence of a single bureaucratic actor, the Ministry of Railways, should help lead to improved safety eventually. However, it is clear there is a long way to go. The Ministry of Railways has been focused on other priorities. No railway official would want an accident, but the desire to build out a super-modern train network that generates revenue and pride for the country seems to have taken front seat.
Attitude is as important as organization. The Chinese government often times seems to act as if it were an American 25-year old who believes they will not get sick and, hence, can forgo health insurance. Such young adults typically avoid preventative care, and when they do become sick, it is financially catostrophic. Of course, buying health insurance and making safety the number-one priority would be smart, but it is not the obvious choice for the young at heart. Time will tell if this country's government can mature.