Caixin
Sep 21, 2018 07:11 PM
SOCIETY & CULTURE

Outspoken Academic Who Lambasted Officials Over Deadly Train Crash Dies at 80

Wang Mengshu, a renowned academician at the prestigious state-backed Chinese Academy of Engineering, died Thursday at age 80. Photo: VCG
Wang Mengshu, a renowned academician at the prestigious state-backed Chinese Academy of Engineering, died Thursday at age 80. Photo: VCG

China’s railways, like many other state-controlled sectors, have a long-running problem with transparency.

Even those not directly working for the Ministry of Transport or National Railways Administration, such as railway academics and other experts, often avoid commenting on sensitive issues such as ticket prices and passenger safety.

But Wang Mengshu, who died of a cerebral hemorrhage at 80 on Thursday, was an exception.

The leading tunnel expert and academician at the prestigious state-backed Chinese Academy of Engineering openly criticized the government for failings that led to a bullet-train accident in 2011 in which 40 people died, and suggested that China should not pursue speed for the sake of international recognition.

Wang had been dubbed the “railways spokesman” as he was always the first person reporters would go to for a quote on the industry.

Born in 1938 in Central China’s Henan province, Wang graduated from Southwest Jiaotong University (then called the Tangshan Railway Institute) in 1964. The next year, when China decided to build a subway in Beijing, Wang applied to be a technician on the project. The subway line, the country’s first, was opened in 1969.

Wang later served as an engineer at China Railway Tunnel Group Co. Ltd. and the now-defunct Ministry of Railways, winning accolades for his tunnel research, before being elected an academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering in 1995.

In a country where people walk a fine line when they make public comments, Wang dared to “derail” from the mainstream.

A case in point was a major bullet train crash in 2011, which killed 40 and injured about 200 others in Zhejiang province after a train plowed into the back of another, derailing six coaches with four plunging from a viaduct.

Officials quickly blamed the signaling design flaws and reduced the trains’ top speed, but Wang, who was part of the accident investigation team, publicly accused the authorities of poor governance that led to the incident.

“Machines have to work with people, and many incidents happened due to a lack of proper personnel training. We can’t just blame the machinery because the management has a responsibility to train staff well,” he was quoted as saying by local media.

In 2015, a debate surfaced about lifting the post-crash speed limit of bullet trains to the maximum 350 kph (217.5 mph) from 300 kph. The authorities said going back up to 350 kph was technically viable but they hesitated to do so due to the higher operational costs. Wang said publicly that trains should run at 80% of their maximum speed for safety reasons and to protect the durability of the trains.

Wang’s bluntness won him praise.

Yang Yudong, vice minister of transport, visited Wang after he became ill last year. Yang said he highly valued the contributions Wang made.

“Wang offered helpful advice to high-speed railways with his wisdom and farsightedness,” Yang said.

Contact reporter Jason Tan (jasontan@caixin.com)

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