Rail­way guards fade into his­tory

China Daily (Canada) - - CHINA - By XIN­HUA in TAIYUAN

Yu Jiang­chong has spent 26 years work­ing as a train guard at the Da­tong sec­tion of the Taiyuan Rail­way Bureau in Shanxi prov­ince. His job is to “mon­i­tor train op­er­a­tions” and pre­pare for emer­gen­cies, all the while sit­ting alone in the last car of the train.

But this year’s Spring Fes­ti­val rush may be his last on a train. Hu­man train guards are now ob­so­lete, hav­ing been su­per­seded by tech­nol­ogy.

“Thir­teen of us have been trans­ferred to other posts. I’ll be lucky if I see out the year,” said Yu, 49.

When his train passes through sta­tions, he sig­nals with red and green flags to driv­ers and sta­tion staff. He can also ac­cess the train’s brakes and stop the train in case of an emer­gency.

He re­mem­bers the only time he had to pull the brake was in 1995, when he found a car­riage door of the freight train had opened.

“The door belt pos­si­bly got loose when the train was run­ning,” he said, adding that the open door flap­ping could have caused dam­age to the sig­nal­ing gear along the track.

“If the sig­nal gear had got­ten dam­aged, train op­er­a­tions all along the line would have been badly dis­rupted. The con­se­quences would have been very se­ri­ous,” he said.

Yu be­lieves his job is very im­por­tant, but with the big changes on China’s rail net­work, guards are be­ing phased out.

Zhi Xi­quan, di­rec­tor of the Da­tong sec­tion, said that the num­ber of guards work­ing on the sec­tion had de­creased from more than 300 to 50.

“Tech­nol­ogy is the main rea­son,” he said.

Rail­way con­struc­tion in China has moved at break­neck speed over the last 10 years. There are now more than 12,000 kilo­me­ters of high-speed lines with bul­let trains run­ning at speeds of up to 380 km per hour. At that kind of speed, keep­ing the train safe with noth­ing more than the guards’ naked eyes is im­pos­si­ble and elec­tronic sys­tems must do the job in­stead.

More and more guards have been given new jobs, and the re­main­ing 6,000, in­clud­ing Yu, will leave their posts when “end of train de­vices” are in­stalled on all pas­sen­ger trains later this year.

Their other tasks — safety checks be­fore trains start mov­ing and air pres­sure re­port­ing — have been dis­trib­uted among sta­tion staff and train ste­wards.

“The de­vice is still be­ing tested, but it will soon re­place us,” he said.

Yu wor­ries that tech­nol­ogy can­not cover his job. “What if the de­vice breaks down? What if there is an un­fore­see­able emer­gency along the way? Un­ex­pected cases have to be dealt with by peo­ple,” he said.

Yu’s con­cern is rea­son­able. In July 2011, 40 peo­ple were killed in Wen­zhou when two high­speed trains col­lided. The crash was caused by a se­ries of flaws in con­trol sys­tems and made worse by the in­ad­e­quate emer­gency re­sponse of rail­way au­thor­i­ties.

“Hu­man guards aided by de­vices are the best way to en­sure safety,” Yu said.

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