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Firing of China’s rail chief hints at trouble

(The following appeared on the New York Times website on February 17, 2011.)

BEIJING — In his seven years as chief of the Chinese Railways Ministry, Liu Zhijun built a commercial and political colossus that spanned continents and elevated the lowly train to a national symbol of pride and technological prowess.

His abrupt sacking by the Communist Party is casting that empire in a decidedly different light, raising doubts not only about Mr. Liu’s stewardship and the corruption that dogs China’s vast public-works projects, but also, perhaps, the safety, financial soundness and long-term viability of a rail system that has captured the world’s attention.

Mr. Liu, 58, was fired Saturday and is being investigated by the party’s disciplinary committee for “severe violations of discipline,” a euphemism for corruption. His high government rank — minister-level officials are rarely fired under such a cloud — hints at far deeper dissatisfaction with one of China’s most publicized and sweeping domestic initiatives.

Some clues have underscored concerns in some quarters that Mr. Liu cut corners in his all-out push to extend the rail system and to keep the project on schedule and within its budget. No accidents have been reported on the high-speed rail network, but reports suggest that construction quality may at times have been shoddy.

Strong concrete pillars require a large dose of high-quality fly ash, the byproduct of burning coal. But the speed of construction has far exceeded the available supply, according to a 2008 study by a Chinese railway design institute.

Such problems, the expert said, are caused by a combination of tight controls that have kept China’s costs far below Western levels and a strong aversion to buying higher-quality but more expensive equipment from foreign suppliers.

As expensive as it is, China’s high-speed rail network has been built far more cheaply than similar projects in the West and in Japan. A mile of rail here costs roughly $15 million; in the United States, estimates peg the price at anywhere between $40 million to $80 million.

Japanese officials have already made an issue of the potential safety problems in the Chinese high-speed rail network.

The full story appears on the New York Times website.

Friday, February 18, 2011

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