China’s high-speed rail ambitions are under fresh scrutiny after a newly built track collapsed in heavy rains.

Workers on Tuesday were scrambling to fix more than 7km of a line that sank in a flood-prone part of central Hubei province. Initial reports had said that the collapse only affected a 300m stretch.

The water damage was the latest in a string of problems to have hit China’s high-speed rail programme, once a source of national pride, over the past year. Concerns that quality had been sacrificed in the country’s rush to build up its rail network were tragically highlighted when a bullet train crash killed 40 people last July.

Since then the government has cut the running speed of trains and also scaled back its investment in new lines.

The share prices of China’s leading railway construction companies and train manufacturers fell sharply on Monday when the collapse was first reported, but recovered some ground on Tuesday after analysts said that the accident was unlikely to alter Beijing’s already scaled-back investment plans.

China has said it will invest Rmb400bn ($63bn) in railway construction this year, down from Rmb469bn in 2011 and well down from a peak of Rmb700bn in 2010. China’s first high-speed train only went into operation in 2007, but by last year it had built up the world’s biggest bullet train network with 10,000km of tracks.

With several major new lines still under construction, the government has been working to restore public confidence in its plans and passengers have returned in droves in recent months.

Local officials in Hubei tried to calm concerns after the latest incident, saying that the track had collapsed because of geology, not construction quality. But they also said that inspection teams had certified the track as safe before the accident and that they had conducted test runs.

Wang Zujian, a director of the provincial railway construction bureau, told the official Xinhua news agency that investigations after the accident found evidence of subsidence along more than 7km of the line. Workers were now reinforcing the elevated track bed, he added.

The first sign of serious trouble in China’s high-speed rail programme came early last year, before the fatal crash, when the railway minister, Liu Zhijun, was dismissed in a corruption investigation.

A cabinet-level report in December said that there had been rampant mismanagement in the country’s railway industry. It called for a “complete upgrade” of safety standards, especially in the construction and operation of bullet trains.

Get alerts on Chinese economy when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article