Crazy Train or: A Loco Motive

Riding the Beijing-Shanghai high speed train.

Shortly after it first began operations on June 30, the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed train experienced a series of power failures. Though the government swore up and down that the trains were “highly protected” and that the brownouts “pose no threat to its operational safety,” we know from the Wenzhou train collision that a stopped train is anything but safe.

In both cases, it was determined that equipment failure triggered by inclement weather were to blame. So it’s been a tempestuous year for really fast locomotives but people still crowded into train stations to buy tickets simply because they have no choice—airplane tickets were too expensive and everything else was too slow.

My fellow contributor Abby Fitzgibbon, whom I was going to visit in Shanghai, begged me to take any means of travel other than the high-speed train but I didn’t listen. I willingly put my life in the dutiful hands of the Ministry of Railways because I relished the fear of death. I wanted to know what it felt like to knowingly put my life in danger, to make an actuarial calculation of what my life was worth and how much I was willing to risk it, to play dice with death and see who’d come out on top. I told her I’d buy a motorcycle helmet for the trip and picked the fastest train possible.

I stepped on the train ready to die. I knew, rationally, that an accident was unlikely—thousands of passenger trains run everyday and recently the government had lowered the maximum speed on the fastest commutes and recalled a number of trains on the Beijing-Shanghai route over safety concerns. Still, my mind focused on the recent… malfunctions of the Chinese railway system.

The train pulled out of the station into a clear Beijing morning. As we got rolling, I played through various worst-case scenarios:

1. The train, going at a maximum speed of 300 km/h derails. I’m in the middle of the train. The car rips apart like a pencil snapping in half. We cartwheel into the fields. I am knocked unconscious by an oversized piece of luggage. The rescue crew buries me alive.

2. We rear-end another train. I am far enough from the front of the train to survive the initial impact. But I fly forward from my seat at roughly 300 km/h, leaving a George-shaped hole in seat 5B.

3. Our train stops randomly. We have ten minutes to live before the next train smashes into us. I try jumping out of the windows but they are locked. The attendants tell everyone to stay in their seats but I know we’re all going to die. I contemplate having sex for the last time or robbing the food car but don’t because what if we don’t die, how embarrassing would that be?

The train was cruising by the time my paranoia subsided. Besides the sharp jolt every time we crossed another train, the ride was incredibly smooth. The trees lining the track passed just a little too quickly, like footage from a sped-up video. I made a game of spotting farmers amid the verdant green of their geometrically partitioned fields.

Few would have even thought that a train collision on the high-speed rail, the crown jewel of China’s infrastructure boom, was possible.

As the countryside flowed past, my mind drifted to the tragedy on July 23. None of the passengers knew they were going to die that day. Perhaps few would have even thought a train collision on the high-speed rail, the crown jewel of China’s infrastructure boom, possible.

But everything is impossible until it happens, and what has happened once can happen again.

I thought back to scenario three. If my train stopped, I would be worried about a collision because I knew of the Wenzhou accident, because there was a precedent. But what about the original passengers of D3115, the train that had stopped on the viaduct? Had they worried about another train ramming into them from behind, or was that outside the realm of possibility? Conversely, did anyone on D301, the train that ultimately ran into D3115, dream that their train would collide with another one stopped on the track?

If I hadn’t known about the Wenzhou accident, or if it had never happened, I probably wouldn’t have contemplated my own mortality before purchasing a high-speed rail ticket.

But more and more, I am forced to think about death, the premature and unnatural kind. Every new scandal reveals one more aspect of Chinese society to be unsafe. Every fuerdai beating makes me afraid to walk in front of riced-out BMWs. Every food scandal sullies another tier of the food pyramid. Every building fire makes me sleep just a little worse.

There are only two ways to feel safe in China: one is to have enough money and the other is to know as little as possible.

Indeed, there are only two ways to feel safe in China. One is to have enough money to insulate yourself from these dangers—to buy imported foods, to fly instead of taking the high-speed, to be the one administering the beatings instead of the one receiving them. The other way—the only way available for most Chinese—is to know as little as possible, to shut your eyes and smile.

Most of us live somewhere between these two extremes. We know the dangers but cannot avoid them. So we live in fear or resignation.

When it comes to some things, the less I know the better. I don’t want to know if my favorite restaurant uses gutter oil. I don’t want to know if my building has adequate fire protection. I don’t want to know what the Beijing air is doing to my lungs. Because even if I did know, what could I do about it?

I had a great weekend in Shanghai. I went to an art and fashion exhibition near the Cool Docks. I survived the high-speed train ride there and back, no power outages, no nothing. It was only after I got back to Beijing that I heard about the subway accident. It had occurred on the same line we took to the art exhibition, and at the same stop we had gotten off at not three days before.

Talk about a close call.