New High Speed Trains a Hit; Oil Spill Response a Miss in Latest News Out of China

Environmental news in China has seen some real highs and lows of late, ranging from the opening of the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed rail to a severe oil spill.

Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Rail a Sell-Out

Trains began running on the new high-speed line between Beijing and Shanghai on June 30. Formerly a trip that could take over 12 hours, the new trains can make the 820 mile journey in less than 5. In contrast, a trip of equivalent distance from Washington, DC to Orlando by train takes over 16 hours.

Despite some public grumbling that the new train is expensive – ticket prices are reported to range from RMB 450 to RMB 1750 (approximately U.S. $70 to $270) – the train is proving to be popular. A check in Beijing yesterday showed that tickets have sold out for weeks. The lower-priced tickets, while still pricier than slower trains, remain much less expensive than air travel, where a discounted ticket from Beijing to Shanghai is generally around RMB 1300 (US $200).

There has been one technical problem reported thus far. On July 10, Shanghai-bound trains lost power for some period between 90 minutes and two hours (press accounts are somewhat confused on the duration (see People’s Daily and China Daily. The cause appeared to be severe thunderstorms causing a power outage in the area. The trains lost all power, including that for lighting and air-conditioning, and passengers describe being concerned and fearful, despite reporting that the railway staff were apologetic during the outage.

Major Oil Spill: News Less Forthcoming

While problems and progress in the high-speed rail service has been reported rapidly, much more criticism has been leveled at reporting on China’s recent oil spill at the Conoco Philipps – China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) Penglai Field in China’s Bohai Gulf. China’s largest operating field suffered a major leak on June 4, and the story emerged only slowly on Chinese micro-blogging sites (similar in use to Twitter on the Chinese domestic web) before being picked up by the Chinese paper Southern Weekend on June 30. CNOOC acknowledged the leak on July 1, and the Chinese State Oceanic Administration then addressed it on July 4 with a damage assessment that stated there would be minimal impact. Since then, criticism has been mounting, both among NGOs, but also within the Chinese official media, at the failure of the oil company to rapidly report the leak. The Chinese Communist Party-owned People’s Daily issued a commentary, entitled “China needs zero tolerance for concealing major accidents.”“ Acknowledging that the “goal of zero accidents may be unachievable,” the paper stressed that it is imperative to acknowledge and address accidents immediately. At the same time eleven NGOs sent an open letter to the two oil companies, demanding an apology both for the spill itself and for the concealment of the information. This demand was also covered in the press.

The dialogue on this spill reflects a considerable advance in the sophistication of the public discourse over accidents – acknowledging that openness is the critical first step in reducing their frequency. There has been a tendency for Chinese institutions to try to assert perfect records in a variety of areas and then to be afraid to admit any errors.

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