Technically speaking, China has one of the most advanced railway networks on the planet. In an astonishingly short period of time, the country has built the world’s most extensive high-speed network and has begun manufacturing the world’s fastest high-speed trains. Not content with its domestic network, China is looking to finance and build railways in other countries.
Substantial investment and political will has in seven years taken China from opening its very first high-speed railway to being the owners of a sprawling 11,000-kilometre network. Although investment in China’s high-speed railway has dipped from its highest point in 2010, it is still growing steadily and more cities are investing in modern metro and tram systems.
However, China’s rail boom has given the sector little time to mature. One area in which China has already had to learn some difficult lessons is health and safety.
In July 2011, two high-speed trains collided on a viaduct in Wenzhou, killing 40 people. An investigation into the cause of the disaster found issues with the design of control centre equipment and was critical of the response by railway staff to the faults that led to the collision.
A year before Wenzhou, Zhejiang University had recognised the need to develop a health and safety culture within the Chinese rail industry and approached the Lloyd’s Register team in Beijing to help it fill the skills gap.
The Lloyd’s Register Foundation issued an invitation to tender asking educational bodies in the UK to design an appropriate MSc programme to train Chinese health and safety professionals. The Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education (BCRRE) at The University of Birmingham and the High Integrity Systems Engineering Group at The University of York submitted the winning bid and received £1.5 million to develop the programme with Zhejiang.
In autumn 2013, Birmingham and York launched the pilot Railway Risk and Safety Management MSc programme with eight students from Zhejiang. Twelve months on, the students are returning to China and tutors at Zhejiang are about to start teaching the partner programme in Hangzhou. The course itself includes specific rail modules and some general safety modules. Within a few years, the hope is that Zhejiang will be able to teach the course independently.
‘Railways are very important to this university,’ said Professor Sir David Eastwood, vice chancellor of the University of Birmingham, during a formal launch event in the Edwardian residence and gardens of Winterbourne House within the university’s campus on 3 September.
He added, ‘They are important because we’re the only university with our own station. Also, we’re enormously proud of the railways group here at University of Birmingham. It’s a group in which the university is investing to grow.’
The event was a celebration of how far the programme has progressed in just a couple of years, but all stakeholders acknowledged that training health and safety professionals was only part of the solution. They will now need to work with industry to establish the health and safety culture which will create the opportunities for their graduates.
Professor Eastwood said, ‘The great global challenges will only be met by collaborative programmes like this.’
China has made it clear that it is looking for opportunities to build and finance rail projects around the world. The signing of a bilateral agreement between David Cameron and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in June seemed to open the door to some kind of Chinese role in HS2. During an address at the launch event, Li Guoqiang, First Secretary of Education for the Chinese Embassy in the UK, said that Chinese companies are now visiting the UK to discuss cooperation on specific projects.