On July 23 2011, two high speed trains travelling by overhead track through Wenzhou, China collided. The incident killed a total of 40 people and the attempted cover up caused considerable unrest and international publicity.
The crash in China was a major blow to the public image of their high speed rail (HSR) system, no doubt it also turned heads in Japan, who produced the Shinkansen system from which the Chinese system was developed. With countries such as the US and the UK looking to HSR as a transport solution, concern surfaced about the safety of such systems.
China has the largest high speed system in the world, with plans to double the existing 11,000 km. Especially given China’s low rail construction costs, the middle kingdom is a good place to start when looking at the safety of HSR systems world wide.
When comparing transport fatality rates a typical measure is that of passenger deaths per billion kilometres. You’ll note straight off that transport in general is a relatively safe activity – we have to scale to the billions to get meaningful numbers.
Sadly, finding data on China’s high speed system was not too easy. In the end I settled with information for their entire rail system. In short, Chinese rail is incredibly safe. Over the last four years only 73 people have died on the Chinese rail network (bare in mind this is a country of over a billion people), while almost 3.8 billion passenger kilometres have been traveled. Even in the year of the fateful Whenzhou Crash, China’s system had less than 0.05 deaths per billion pax-km, compared to over 3.5 on roads in New Zealand and Japan. China does not release such data on their roads, however in another developing country, Brazil, we can see deaths exceeding 24 people per billion passenger kilometres – the Chinese rail statistics simply were not visible with the graph scaled to show Brazil’s road death rate.
Outside of China, Japan has operated their Shinkansen with no accident related deaths for over 50 years while France has had only a handful of fatal crashes (generally involving 1-5 deaths). In summary, it is clear that high speed trains are a very safe mode of travel – even in countries with a reputation for cost cutting.