Shanghai Rail Commuters Get Onboard With a Prayer: Adam Minter

a | A

By Adam Minter

On Sept. 27, two trains in Shanghai's subway system collided, injuring more than 280 commuters. Shortly after the news began to circulate in the late afternoon, I received a text message from a Chinese friend that simply said: “Shanghai too.”

I went online to watch a live Internet telecast of the crash site and saw Chinese netizens' comments streaming alongside the video. Commentators quickly linked “Shanghai” with “Wenzhou,” the site of July’s deadly high-speed rail collision. As images of emergency vehicles and injured survivors of the Shanghai crash flashed across the computer screen, the commentators posited that this was yet another result of corruption and incompetence.

But there was also a sense of the inevitable.

Shanghai’s subway riders (I am one) are all-too-familiar with bungling conductors who often ignore signals and don't line up train cars with platform doors. Shanghai Subway Line 10, along which the Sept. 27 accident took place, has only existed for 18 months but had already become notorious. One day, a train car's glass doors  spontaneously shattered. Another day, a conductor led a train down the wrong track, only to then make the dangerous decision to back the train up.

Subway commuters across China have been plagued by similar operational problems and the subway lines' overall sub-standard construction. In 2008, for example, 10 people were killed in eastern China when a subway tunnel collapsed.

After the Sept. 27 accident, Yu Shunshun, a well-known blogger, went to Sina Weibo, China’s leading Twitter-like microblog, to give some advice to Shanghai’s subway-wary citizens:

… Take the middle carriage whenever you are on a metro line or a high-speed train … if the vehicle is overloaded, please send a message describing your position so as to make it easy for your relatives and friends to locate you. Make sure your cell phone has power before you step on any vehicle and be sure to pray for yourself.

In many cases, that’s the best Shanghai's commuters can do to protect themselves.

As Shanghai’s housing prices rise, residents have little choice but to move further and further away from the city center. They rely on the subway lines to get to work, but the lines were built quickly and shoddily. A common feeling among Shanghai’s commuters is that the subway was not designed to serve them, but to enhance the status of Shanghai’s Communist Party leaders.

Before the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, the city opened four new subway lines intended, in part, to ferry visitors to the Expo grounds from airports and other transportation hubs. Many Shanghai residents worried at the time that the lines were being built too hastily to meet safety standards. But city leaders seemed more afraid that the subway lines would be attacked by terrorists during the Expo. Instead of making it a priority to fix problems with the subway's infrastructure, they installed x-ray machines to scan the bags of passengers.

A year and a half after the Expo, the scanners remain. BBPanda, a user of Sina Weibo, posted this observation shortly after the Sept. 27 crash: “The metro, which can't guarantee operational security, still has time to check my bag every day. My bag is sure to be safer than your metro.”

Predictably, Shanghai Shentong Metro, the operator of Shanghai’s subway system, has shifted blame for the crash to third parties. Xinhua, China’s state-owned news service, reported that Line 10 signaled a system failure at 2:10 p.m. However, rather than shut down the system, the metro’s managers opted to run the line “via phone by subway staff rather than by electric signals.” This approach appeared to work reasonably well for the next 41 minutes. But at 2:51 p.m., two trains collided under the direction of unidentified telephone operators.

Rather than immediately take responsibility for this manual error, the Shanghai Metro first blamed CASCO Signal Ltd., the manufacturer of the failed signaling equipment. (Note: CASCO’s French partner was held partly responsible for the 2009 Washington, D.C. metro crash.)

The English-language, state-owned Shanghai Daily ran an article that detailed the many problems the CASCO signaling equipment has had in China. It also included this curious allegation: “The signaling system that malfunctioned … was also blamed for the fatal bullet train collision in Wenzhou on July 23, killing 40 people.” However, the official Chinese government report on the cause of the Wenzhou crash has not yet been released –- a fact surely known to employees of Shanghai’s state-owned news services.

There are Chinese voices willing to speak over the din of state-generated propaganda, including a senior manager at the state-owned airline, China Eastern. On Sina Weibo, he offered this theory on the cause of the Shanghai crash:

A shift to manual control after equipment failure is the cause of the Shanghai crash, just as it was the cause of the Wenzhou crash. Just as we can’t seem to write without a computer, it seems that our manual ability, minus technology, is quite low.

Shanghai's government is generally perceived to be more efficient than those of other Chinese cities. But the most stunning rebuke of Shanghai’s metro mismanagement comes not from microbloggers, but from the hyper-nationalist, state-owned Global Times newspaper. Toward the end of its ironically titled editorial, “The Signal of the Shanghai Subway Crash,” the editors noted:

Many Chinese feel proud that the country's rapidly surging infrastructure could almost compete with those in developed countries. However, the fact that China's city management is backward deserves more attention and caution.

Are these recent train crashes in China simply a matter of human resource management? Just as China's netizens called into question the competence of the Communist Party after the Wenzhou high-speed rail crash, they did so with the Shanghai crash. On Sept. 27, not long after the news of the collision broke, one Sina Weibo tweeted: “The distorted development of the whole social system caused these tragic scenes.”

Yet for all of the finger-pointing, one simple fact remains: Shanghai’s subway system was packed with commuters on Sept. 28, the day after the crash. Many of them were quietly reading newspaper accounts of what had happened to fellow commuters less than 24 hours earlier. Shanghai's residents can either move somewhere less riddled with the consequences of breakneck economic growth, or accept the risks that come with China's rail lines. Until the Communist Party offers them a safer alternative, most of the residents of this young and ambitious city will likely continue to take the train. I know I will.

(Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the author of this blog post: Adam Minter at

To contact the editor responsible for this post: Katherine Brown at

-0- Sep/29/2011 14:43 GMT