Railway guards fade into history
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 Human train guards are now obsolete, having been superseded by technology.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.