Mismanaged Mayhem: The 2011 Wenzhou (China) Train Collision

Please note: Censorship and questionable information played a major part in this accident, so some information might not be at the usual level of accuracy.

Background

Wenzhou (温州市) is a city of 9.57 million people (as of 2020) on China’s eastern coast, located in Zhejiang Province (浙江省) 365km/228mi south of Shanghai (上海市) and 344km/214mi north-northwest of Taipei, Taiwan (both measurements in linear distance).

The location of Wenzhou in eastern China.

Wenzhou lies on the Yongtaiwen Railway, a 275km/171mi double-tracked electrified high speed main line opened in 2009. The line was built to service several cities along China’s eastern coast, an area previously largely relying on maritime transportation as the rugged terrain made railways and roads complex and expensive. Trains reach up to 250kph/155mph as they travel between the termini at Ningbo and Wenzhou in as little as 72 minutes. A major construction-effort to facilitate the line is the Oujiang-Bridge, a 6.24km/3.9mi viaduct to the west of Wenzhou, resting on 173 pillars.

The site of the accident seen from above, both trains were coming from the north (top of the image).

The trains involved

D3115 was an express passenger service from Hangzhou to Fuhou South, provided by a Chinese Railway (CR) CRH1B , specifically unit CRH1–046B. The CRH1-series is a license-built version of the Swedish Bombardier “Regina” electric multiple unit-family and is built by Bombardier and Sifang in China. Introduced in 2009 each CRH1B consists of sixteen cars seating up to 1299 people in a two-class configuration. The trains have no dedicated motor car, meaning passengers can be seated in all sixteen cars. Each unit measures 426.3m/1399ft in length at a weight of 850 metric tons and can reach up to 250kph/155mph.

A CRH1-unit identical to the one involved photographed at Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station in 2011.

Following behind D3115 in the same direction was D301, a high speed passenger service from Beijing South to Fuzhou with 558 people on board. On the day of the accident the service was provided by CRH2–139E. The CRH2E is a license-built version of the Japanese E2–1000 Shinkansen high speed train and first entered service in December 2007. Each unit consists of sixteen cars measuring 401.4m/1317ft in length at a weight of approximately 700 metric tons. The E-version was specifically developed for overnight services, with 13 of the sixteen cars being set up as first class sleeper cars and only the end-cars and bistro car offering standard seating. As such the train has a total capacity of 630 passengers and travels at up to 250kph/155mph. The trains are easily identified by their distinctive long “beak” characteristic for Japanese Shinkansen-trains.

A CRH2E-unit identical to the one involved in the accident photographed in 2017.

The accident

Note: The information in this section is partially speculative as it relies on official but not necessarily fully accurate sources.

On the 23rd of July 2011 at approximately 7:30pm a lightning storm had formed near Wenzhou. Lightning from the storm subsequently struck a trackside LKD2-T1 signal control unit, burning out the fuse box of the unit. The failure of the control unit turned signals on the viaduct over the Ou River red. This caused the ATP (Automatic Train Protection) to stop the southbound D3115 on the bridge. By 7:39pm the signal box at Wenhou South Station registered the “Red Zone Warning” (occupied section on the bridge), but a radio-conversation with a worker at the central Main Dispatch Center (OCC) reveals that their system does not show any occupied zones, claiming signals were green and no train was on the bridge. Train operations continue as D3115 is stopped on the bridge, with technicians sent from Wenzhou South Station trying to figure out and repair the defect. OCC instructs the neighboring stations (Wenzhou South and Yongjia) to switch to local control and proceed operations that way, circumventing the inconsistency for the time being.

The local dispatch center orders the driver of D3115 to override ATP by switching to manual control mode, which the driver fails to do despite trying several times by 8:28pm. He also fails to contact the OCC during that time, just as Wenzhou unsuccessfully tries to contact the driver, likely due to unknown damage to the electrical system. Meanwhile train D301 was cleared to proceed across the bridge, as it was assumed that their system was correct and the bridge was clear. Due to the inconsistencies the train was ordered to move “on sight” at no more than 99kph/61.5mph. In reality D3115 only started moving at 8:29pm, rolling at approximately 16kph/10mph. Crossing into the next section of the signaling-system, which was unaffected by the lightning strike, the OCC suddenly got the indication that the bridge was occupied after all and realized that their system had been wrong, not the local center’s at Wenzhou. Wenzhou sent an urgent warning to D301 at 8:29:32pm, ordering an immediate stop. Regardless, D301 crashed into the back of D3115 at 8:30:05pm, at an excess speed of 83kph/51.5mph.

The fifteenth and sixteenth cars of D3115 derailed along with the leading 4 cars of D301. It is suspected that D301 dug underneath the rear car of D3115, crushing the driver’s cab before being forced to the side and falling off the bridge. The leading 3 cars completely fell off the bridge, coming to rest in the dirt below while car 4 barely slid off the edge of the bridge, ending up near-vertical as it leaned against the bridge at the site. According to official claims 40 people died in the collision, with 192–210 being injured.

Aftermath

Medical teams from several surrounding hospitals as well as countless firefighters and police officers responded to the accident, working in two crews both on top of and below the bridge. The country’s political leadership called for an “all out rescue effort”, declaring it an objective of the highest priority. Railway Minster Sheng Guangzu visited the site on the 24th of July, apologizing for the horrific accident. However, while responders were still digging through the wreckage in the hopes of finding survivors they started spotting construction equipment being dropped off below the bridge, mainly backhoes and excavators. 21 hours after the accident a two years old girl was pulled from the wreckage alive as the last survivor to be rescued. However, despite a thorough investigation being announced it only took minutes after the last survivor was rescued for the backhoes to start ripping the wreckage below the bridge apart and burying it at the site. The remains of D301’s leading car hadn’t even been examined by investigators before they were destroyed and buried. The widespread criticism that this was done to literally bury evidence was met with authorities widely censoring the media’s reporting about the accident and aftermath.

Responders dropping D301’s fourth car completely off the bridge.

Chinese media was ordered not to send reporters to the scene, not to report about the accident too frequently and not to make any connections to high speed rail. Thomson Reuters later claimed that the propaganda department issued directives not to question or elaborate the official reports, instead they were to run their reporting under the topic of “‘in the face of great tragedy, there’s great love”, focusing on the local residents volunteering in large numbers to donate blood or stories about how survivors were reunited with relatives. In a rare move a number of Chinese newspapers flat-out ignored the orders, and even the state-run “Global Times” published a rather scathing editorial.

The Ministry of Railways fired three high-ranking officials immediately after the accident, including the head of the Railway Bureau, the deputy head of the Bureau and a secretary of the Chinese Communist Party. Relatives’ demands to find out why the accident happened were continuously ignored, with the Railway Ministry instead repeating their apologies and announcing a two months long safety-campaign. Meanwhile the Wenzhou Judicial Bureau ordered lawyers across China not to accept cases by relatives of victims or by survivors, explaining that the accident is a “major sensitive issue concerning social stability”.

On the 29th of July 2011 a second directive was issued banning any and all independent coverage of the accident, only allowing government-issued pieces. This forced various outlets to scrap “one week on”-stories they had prepared, reportedly costing them 8–12 pages on short notice. State-run Xinhua had to ask subscribers not to read an article already posted on a time-delay. Beijing-based “The Economic Obsever” flouted the ban, publishing an eight-page feature including a letter on the front page demanding the truth behind the accident on behalf of the 2 years old girl who was rescued but orphaned.

One of D3115’s cars being recovered from the wreckage.

In August 2011 the approval of new high speed rail lines was suspended, while reduced operating speeds and 5% lower ticket prices were meant to compensate the severe drop in ridership after the accident. It is also assumed that the accident dealt a serious blow to China’s efforts to export cheap high speed train technology.

State-controlled Beijing News reported in November that the investigation by the government had concluded that “poor management by the local administration” had caused the accident, while the official report that released a month later added flaws in the design of various hardware components to the cause and placed blame on no less than 54 officials. The most significant official among them was former railway minister Liu Zhijun, who allegedly raised the operating speed of the affected rail line and had cut safety tests short to compress the schedule and open the line sooner. After the report released it was pointed out that that Zhang Shuguang, the deputy chief engineer of China’s railways, had been arrested in February for having amassed 2.5 Billion Euros/2.8 Billion USD in overseas bank accounts through bribes and kickbacks, shortly after Liu Zhijun had been fired for allegedly taking 800 Million Yuan (113 Million Euros/126 Million USD)in kickbacks during the construction of the high speed network. This made it more likely that corruption was at the root of the accident, not simple operational negligence.

The report goes on to assign fault to executives and engineers of the China Railway Signal & Communications group for designing, producing and installing insufficient/defective equipment, executives of the Jingfu Railway cooperation who permitted the installation, and Wang Feng, deputy chief of the Shanghai Railway Bureau for ordering the burial of parts of the wreckage. A press conference had been held the day after the accident where it was explained that the wreckage had to be buried as the trains contained “valuable national level technology” at the risk of being stolen by spies, before pivoting to saying that the burial was necessary to facilitate the continuation of the rescue. When that explanation caused disbelieving gasps and heckling by the present journalists Wang Yongping, the spokesman of the railway ministry, explained “Whether or not you believe [this explanation], I believe it.” before refusing to elaborate on the matter.

Excavators burying the ripped up wreckage at the site the day after the accident.

Despite the government’s efforts to keep the aftermath out of the public eye images of the wreck’s burial widely circulated within China and internationally, creating outrage as well as accusations of the true cause being literally buried. Yongping was widely ridiculed online, to the point where several cartoons and a music video were created making fun of his botched handling of the situation. Alongside the unusually vocal Chinese press online communities were significant in putting public pressure on political officials. Yongping was removed from his post in August, eventually being moved to the Organization for Cooperation of Railways in Poland, leading online forums to semi-seriously circulate advise to quickly sell one’s Polish high speed rail stocks.

In the end the accident’s cause was traced to insufficient equipment having been used, likely because of a choosing-process heavily influenced by personal connections and corruption, with the hardware having no redundancies. Normally modern railways are designed so that a single point of failure can’t cause a major accident, but this is exactly what happened. The lightning-strike took out a fuse-box, disabling part of the signaling-system. Instead of an identical backup kicking in railway workers were left to try and figure out what exactly had gone wrong, but at the same time, likely due to professional pressure, they chose not to stop traffic on the affected line, creating a needless risk. The signaling system should have never been installed the way it was. Not only did it lack redundancies, it was also unreasonably susceptible to lighting strikes (while being installed atop a bridge) and the software was set up as such that even a (false) “track unoccupied”-report would override the failure message that should have been sent to Yongjia station, the OCC and D301. Instead such a message only appeared on the screens at Wenzhou Station, who then had to try and convince their superiors (of sorts) that their system was “lying” by displaying no error message.

Lastly, it was criticized that operations significantly relied on a (fatally wrong) assumption, rather than waiting to receive certainty at the cost of delays. This breakdown of communications among the confusing situation was the final link in the chain-reaction that led to the collision.

A graphic explaining the fatal flaw of the operating software.

Notably, there was no official mention if the same software or hardware was in use anywhere else on China’s rapidly growing high speed rail network. The botched handling of the accident by Chinese authorities also shone a light on the widespread corruption running in the system, with a prime example being the case of Mister Zhang. The former chief engineer of the Railway Ministry had purchased a luxurious house in a suburb of Los Angeles (USA) in 2002, at which point he had a monthly salary of 236.6 Euros/264 USD. The house, which he transferred to his wife just before his arrest for allegedly taking bribes and kickbacks, was valued at 771 thousand Euros/860 thousand USD.

A Chinese TV-host famously launched into an on-air tirade about the rampant culture of “cut corners and cover it up”, taking aim at the rapid “great leap forward”-mode of operation and asking “If nobody can be safe, do we still want the high speed until it goes wrong again? Can we drink a glass of milk and be safe? Can we stay in apartments that definitely won’t fall apart? Can the roads in our cities not collapse? Can we travel in any safe trains? And if an accident happens, can we not bury the aftermath? Can we afford a basic sense of security?”

CRH2–139E, the train that was buried after the accident, photographed 5 months before the accident.

Despite the wide outcry the accident did fade from the public eye rather quickly and completely, aided by it being China’s first and (as of April 2022) last reported serious accident on the country’s high speed rail network, which eventually resumed its rapid expansion and carries over 2 billion passengers per year. The non-buried remaining cars of CRH2–139E were repaired and combined with two new cars to create a maintenance and inspection train, while the remains of CRH1–046B were split up and given to various training centers across China for responders to rehearse the rescue of passengers off high speed trains. It is unknown if the signaling-system at the site was brought up to international standards after the accident.

Cars 3 and 4 from CRH1–046B photographed at a training center in Beijing.

Both the Chinese Railways CRH1B and CRH2E are still in full service, with no retirement-date in sight. In fact, 4 years after the accident the CRH2E’s routes were expanded. Nothing at the site or the surrounding stations points to the incident today, no memorial exists and as early as 2 years after the accident Chinese media was largely quiet about the anniversary. The accident was damaging and shameful for China’s railway operations, especially their halo-project that is the High Speed network, so it makes sense that the accident was meant to be forgotten about as soon as possible.

Cranes remove a train car from the bridge.

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Train crash reports and analysis, published weekly.

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