Olympic Tragedy: The 2008 Zibo (China) Train Collision

Max S
10 min readNov 5, 2023

Background

Zibo is a city of 4.5 million people (as of 2010) in the far east of China, located in the Shandong province 60km/37mi east of Jinan and 79km/49mi south of Binzhou (both measurements in linear distance).

The location of Zibo in eastern Asia.

The city lies on the Qingdao-Jinan Railway, a double-tracked electrified main line opening in 1904. The line serves 36 stations on 384km/239mi of track and is set up for speeds of as much as 200kph/124mph.

The site of the accident seen from above in 2009, note the remains of the temporary line visible to the left of the marker (gray). The express train approached from the west (left side of the image), the passenger train from the east (right side of the image).

The Trains Involved

T 195 was an express passenger service from Beijing to Qingdao, consisting of 17 Type T25K passenger cars. The T25K is a family of four-axle passenger cars introduced in 1999, being configured in different versions. Each T25K measures 25.5m/84ft in length at a weight of 42–60 metric tons depending on configuration, with the heaviest being the generator car which is used to power the air conditioning. The cars are permitted to travel at 160kph/99mph. T 195 contained a generator car (car 1), 5 second class cars (cars 2–6), a bistro car (car 7), two couchette cars (car 8–9), 7 sleeper cars (cars 10–16) and a baggage car (car 17).

A T25K sleeper car identical with cars 10–16 of T 195, photographed in 2010.

The train was pulled by SS9G-0182, a Shaoshan Type 9 electric locomotive. The Type 9 is a six-axle electric locomotive developed for high speed passenger service, introduced in 1998. Each SS9, as the type is generally called, measures 22.22m/73ft in length at a weight of 126 metric tons and can reach 170kph/106mph. The G marks a modified version of the locomotive which features slightly more aerodynamic ends. T 195 had been branded “Love of the Sea” as part of a marketing-effort for the upcoming 2008 Olympic games, referring to the city of Qingdao where sailing-competitions were to be held.

China Railways SS9G 0182, the locomotive pulling T 195, photographed in 2016.

Coming the other way was train number 5034, a passenger service from Yantai to Xuzhou. The train consisted of 19 Type 22B passenger cars, a four-axle passenger car introduced in 1988. The Type 22B had also been developed in a variety of configurations, much like the T25K, using a shared platform with different interiors. Each Type 22B measures 23.6m/77ft in length at a weight of 41–43 metric tons depending on the configuration, and can reach 120kph/75mph while carrying up to 119 people per car.

A 22B passenger car identical with those making up train #5034, photographed in 2015.

Train #5034 was pulled by DF11–0400 at the time of the accident, a three-axle diesel locomotive introduced in 1992 for passenger express services. Each Type DF11 measures 21.25m/66ft in length at a weight of 138 metric tons and can reach 170kph/106mph for short periods of time.

A Type DF11 diesel locomotive, identical with the one pulling #5034 at the time of the accident, photographed in 2011.

It’s unknown how many passengers were on either train, with sources claiming a combined number “over 2000”.

The accident

T 195 is travelling eastbound through Shandong Province on the 28th of April 2008, passing through Zhengjiangcun at approximately 4:30am. The Qingdao-Jinan rail line is undergoing construction up ahead as part of the creation of the Jiaoji high speed rail line, which will run alongside the Jiaoji passenger rail line. The new high speed line is meant to cut down travel times between Beijing and Qingdao, a city which will host several events during the upcoming olympic games. The new line departs from the old line’s routing in selected spots to allow higher speeds by using wider turns and reduced inclines. The section southwest of Zibo is largely finished, but a piece on the southern end of the section is not yet open to traffic. Due to this eastbound express trains like T 195 use the old routing before using temporary tracks to switch over onto the new high speed line.

The route-situation at the site in 2008, showing the slightly different routing at the site along with the temporary track.

The temporary track carries an 80kph/49.5mph speed limit due to its tight turns. T 195 reaches the beginning of the temporary track at 4:35am, travelling at approximately 135kph/84mph. It makes it around the initial right hand turn off the old routing, covers a brief straight section and then enters the sharp left hand turn onto the new routing. The locomotive actually manages to make it through the second turn, as do the first seven cars of its train. Car 8 is overcome by centrifugal forces and derails, rolling over as it departs the rail line, dragging cars 9–17 off the tracks behind it. Some train cars cross the oncoming (right hand) track and end up in a field adjacent to the rail line, while most of the derailed cars block the right hand track. The separation of the train tears the pneumatic lines open, causing an automatic stop to be triggered which brings the forward section of the train to a stop a short distance down the line. Train #5034, heading westbound through the area, comes around a curve northeast of the construction site just then. It’s unknown if the driver had time to react to the wreckage that is just settling in his path before his train crashes into it, derailing most of the train as momentum forces it through most of T 195’s wreckage before coming to a stop. 72 people die in the derailment and collision, with another 416 being injured, 70 of which severely.

Due to the early hour of the accident most photos show recovery work well in progress.

Aftermath

Survivors emerging from the wreckage made a number of calls on their mobile phones immediately after the accident, temporarily overloading the local network and causing a complete failure of the cell phone network. Around 700 responders were dispatched to the site from nearby Zibo, including 130 ambulance crews, along with 1000 soldiers who, while also helping with the rescue effort, cordoned off the site. Four french nationals, one of which had been severely injured, were airlifted to a college hospital in Beijing, which is considered to be one of China’s best, while most Chinese survivors had to be content with the care provided by local hospitals who were referred to as “relatively sub-standard”. This led to complains that the French nationals were used for PR, getting them to the best hospital with all sorts of care and having politicians visit them rather than deciding care by the degree and nature of a survivor’s injury.

A torn out bogie lies in the wreckage. I apologize for the poor quality of most photos in this article.

The accident came at a bad time for the Chinese government, being the second accident on the line within four months and happening during the lead-up to the olympic games to be held in China. An online rail enthusiast community in China leaked a telegram sent by the Chinese railway ministry the day after the accident, which contained three key factors which lead to the accident:

  1. The administrative structures and processes at the local (Jinan) railway burau are “chaotic” with “untrustworthy” practices. The document containing the speed limit T 195 was meant to abide by was released four days ahead of the accident, being published on the website of the bureau before being printed out and mailed to the dispatch offices who required it. There was no system to ensure all intended recipients had received the information. Another document published on the 26th of April revoked a number of temporary speed restrictions before some of them were put back into place the next day. The telegram notes that, both times, the distribution and reception of the document was not sufficiently surveilled. As a result, some trains were dispatched under the assumption of a speed limit at the site while others weren’t.
  2. The local dispatcher was contacted by a train driver at Jinan station (approximately 60km/37mi to the west from the site) at 2:30am on the day of the accident, telling him he personally had been instructed of a speed limit at the site but the cab-signaling system (a system in the driver’s cab informing the driver of speed limits, signals and other important information) had displayed 120kph/74.5mph.
  3. The station guard at Wangcun station did not ensure that the driver of T 195 was informed about the upcoming low speed zone, a topic which would normally be part of the standard pre-departure procedures.
One car from each train sitting side by side in the wreckage.

In order to understand how different instructions could apply on the same train at the same time one has to know how a lot of trains were operated in China at the time:
The dispatch center programs information like speed restrictions or detours into a so called “Smart Card”, a plastic card with a small data-chip on it (comparable to a hotel key card or a debit-card). The driver who shows up to take command of a train is handed the card during his briefing and, upon boarding the locomotive, will insert it into a card reader built into the control desk. The cab-signaling system then displays information from that card to the driver, letting him know, among other things, how fast he can drive. If the train breaches the speed limit programmed into the card the system will trigger an automatic emergency stop.

The 80kph/49.5mph speed limit at the site had been published on the 26th of April, then (presumably erroneously) revoked on the 27th, before it was once again imposed at 4am on the day of the accident, barely half an hour ahead of the accident. However, the 4am publication failed to reach both the dispatch center in charge of T 195 and the station guard at Wangcun due to the chaotic nature of how these publications were distributed. As such, the cab-signaling system of T 195 had no knowledge of the restriction.

DF11–0400 being removed from the site by a crane.

The Smart-Card system was used in China as a relatively quick and cheap way of modernizing railway traffic, allowing most of the safety-improvement of modern signaling and train control systems without needing quite as much work/equipment. However, the fact that trackside signaling wasn’t integrated into the train control system also meant that speed limits imposed by trackside signaling had no influence on the train if it disregarded that speed limit, as long as it adhered to what the card told it.

Interviews with train drivers who had passed through the site ahead of the accident revealed that a lot of their trains had either only received the first or the first and second publication, indicating speeds of up to 145kph/90mph instead of 80kph/49.5mph.

It also came to light that the driver of T 195 had been told to “hurry up” at an earlier point in the journey, so while he allegedly knew about the speed limit (from the first or third publication, which one is unknown) he may have chosen to trust the locomotive’s system when he received conflicting information. While this can’t be proven it is a realistic assumption under the conditions that he may have figured he must have missed the publication of the speed limit being revoked.

Two of T 195’s cars came to a rest next to the rail line with one’s roof breaking open.

The Financial Times, a UK-based business newspaper gave the most direct statement on the accident, referring to it as a sign of Chinese rail being in desperate need of modernization but not getting sufficient funds to do so. The Guangming Daily, a newspaper literally run by the Chinese Communist party, was unusually honest in saying that the accident was a clear sign of lackluster management and insufficient safety protocols.

The official investigation ended up placing the blame of the accident on no less than 37 people, concluding that the cause of the derailment and subsequent collision was excessive speed driven by T 195 due to its driver not being sufficiently informed/assured of what the speed limit was. Six of the 37 individuals were put on trial in May 2009, among them 2 dispatchers, a station guard, a deputy station guard, a train driver and Mister Jiguang, the former deputy director of the Jinan Railway Bureau. All of them were sentenced to jail time by December, ranging from 3 to 4.5 years in length, with some receiving additional suspended sentences. In the eyes of the court they had committed various actions which were to be seen as (gross) negligence which ended up leading to the fatal collision at Zibo. Several more people, including the director of the Jinan Railway Bureau and members of the Communist Party were removed from their positions.

A bulldozer pushes one of the crashed train cars out of the way, just hours after the accident.

The wreckage was cleared within a few days, with the rail line soon being repaired and reopened. There appears to be no memorial to the accident, and the temporary track T 195 ran on was removed after the construction work finished.

Train cars from both trains sitting in the wreckage, with severe damage visible on the T25K-car (left).

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A kind reader is posting the installments on reddit for me, I cannot interact with you there but I will read the feedback and corrections. You can find the post right here.

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Max S

Train crash reports and analysis, published weekly.