Friday, August 05, 2011

China's Train Crash in a Coal Mine

By Eric Jackson08/03/11 - 08:51 AM EDT

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- With all the noise surrounding the debt-ceiling debate over the last few weeks, you might not have heard about a terrible train crash in Wenzhou, China that took place nearly two weeks ago.

The collision of two high-speed trains killed at least 40 people and injured almost 200. Authorities said a lightning strike knocked out power to one train, causing it to stall, and that a monitoring device then failed to alert the second train.

From a raw numbers perspective, the Wenzhou accident isn't so different from the August 2007 collapse of a bridge in Minneapolis that caused 100 cars to plunge into the Mississippi River. Thirteen people died, and more than 100 were injured.

Firefighters and civilians search for passengers from the wreckage of the Wenzhou train crash on Saturday, July 23.

We don't talk much about that crash today. There was an 18-month investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. The board's conclusions were that over time the bridge started carrying a higher load-bearing weight than it was designed for.

Unfortunately, we haven't heard whether other bridges built decades ago are also at risk because their current loads are exceeding their designed capacity.

There was a lot of media coverage of the Minneapolis disaster, but I can't recall much public outrage. Eventually, Anderson Cooper packed up and went home and the NFL season started.

Yet, in China, the story -- and the public anger over it -- seems to grow by the day.

I first heard about the crash via a friend on Twitter, who was monitoring updates on Sina's(SINA) Weibo service (China's equivalent of Twitter).

Although Weibo has hundreds of censors on staff, the service saw an outpouring of emotions and information about the crash, which I believe is the first major Chinese tragedy since Weibo became used on a widespread basis.

I wonder whether people used the service as a release valve -- one that had never been available to them before.

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