“How Tracks Froze from Hangzhou to Changsha”

Caixin Online claims that the national high-speed rail push has been badly damaged by the Wenzhou crash and the earlier sacking of corrupt Rail Minister Liu Zhijun. Given how invested the Party has been in the high-speed network as a sign of a newly reinvigorated China I’d be surprised if they allow it to continue to wither like this, but for now it seems to be slowing down:

July 1, 2013, is still the official target date for completing a bullet railway line between the willow-shaded city of Hangzhou and historic Changsha.

But central government funding for the 295-kilometer, Zhejiang Province section of the 10 billion yuan project froze in February and began only a partial thaw in November.

The ministry’s provincial rail bureaus and building contractors have struggled to obtain bank financing. Equipment suppliers haven’t been paid. And tens of thousands of laborers haven’t seen a paycheck since spring.

Today, cranes stand idle and work crews have vanished from construction sites along the route, part of tracks eventually slated to connect Shanghai with the Yunnan Province capital Kunming. Partially completed tunnels and piers without bridges bespeak a grand infrastructure project in limbo.

420 million yuan was allocated to the Zhejiang section. And a Jiangxi Province source with a project supplier told Caixin the amount earmarked for work in that province was only about 200 million yuan, most of which went toward overdue worker paychecks.

The source said his company paid back 1 million yuan of his nearly 100 million yuan of overdue payments.

Contractors and the provincial rail bureaus overseeing the project were heartened again in early November by news that the Ministry of Railways would raise another 250 billion yuan through bank loans.

Ministry officials convened a “back-to-work” meeting November 2, where each bureau was ordered to raise 100 million yuan in matching funds within two months.

Yet the amount of money promised this fall pales in comparison to 2010 financing, when the national fast-train buildout was moving at full-throttle speed. For example, the Zhejiang section of the Hangzhou-Changsha line alone received some 10 billion yuan last year.

Through the summer, some hopeful contractors tapped their own funds to keep projects alive. Ringing in their ears were the words of rail bureau officials who, since March 2010, had urged them to meet accelerated project schedules.

After the funding train derailed, however, building crews and material suppliers were along those left in the lurch. Some workers haven’t been paid since April, according to rail bureau officials. And some material suppliers have complained they’ve been owed money since July.

The big stall is also raising technical risks. For example, engineers have warned about the integrity of elevated tracks on the Zhejiang segment, many of which have been only been partially completed.

For unfinished bridges, one chief engineer told Caixin, “concrete quality will change with time. Suspending or slowing construction affects bridge quality.” Similarly, he said, half-done tunnels “bring the risk of collapse.”

Today, while bridge piers and tunnel walls weaken, contractors who had been gung-ho for bullet trains are shopping for new clients.

Scrawled on walls that surround construction sites along the Hangzhou-Changsha right-of-way are phone numbers for crane suppliers whose company bosses, when contacted, said they will no longer take jobs on China’s high-speed railway.

Could the earlier arguments against the viability of the entire project have resurfaced after Liu Zhijun was fired? Or is this just a momentary slackening? We’ll see.

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