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September 29, 2009

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Train driver aims for perfect safety

A modest driver of a Beijing metro train has clocked up a perfect safety record in 820,000 kilometers - now he's aiming to make a million kilometers, Wu Chen reports. After more than 30 years, Zhang Xiaoyu knows his job by heart. Every day, Beijing's safest subway driver covers 200 kilometers; he pulls the hand lever 200 times; he signals 600 times; and he opens and closes the train doors 150 times.

The poor ventilation, the noise and the tedium of staring at the rails disappearing into the blackness until the electric glare of a station looms into view - these are all second nature.

He's clocked up 820,000 kilometers, equivalent to circling the Earth more than 20 times, without an accident in these conditions.

And now he's aiming for 1 million kilometers - with no respite from the daily routine.

Quiet and reserved, he disdains the word "boring" to describe his life or his job.

He's studied hard and he knows the trains inside out. The risks are ever-present.

"It isn't boring at all. Whenever I find a problem and fix it, I feel great satisfaction," he says.

Born in Beijing in 1956, Zhang was the youngest of four children who came of age during the chaos of China's "cultural revolution" (1966-76).

The education system was in ruins and China's social fabric was rent by Chairman Mao Zedong's campaign to "re-educate" urban youths.

Legions of urban teenagers and young people were sent into the countryside to spend years planting crops and raising animals alongside the peasantry.

Zhang's father, who died when Zhang was three years old, was head of the electric engineering bureau of the Ministry of Railways and his mother, a Red Army veteran, so Zhang's elder brother and a sister were packed off to the villages of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in northern China.

Zhang's own fate looked sealed until 1973, when Deng Xiaoping returned to power for the second time, taking the post of vice premier and ordering the restoration of the high school education system.

"It was difficult to get into high school at that time," Zhang recalls. "Only about 25 percent of junior middle school students could pass the examination."

He won a place at Railway No.1 Middle School and graduated in 1975, when he was assigned to be an apprentice subway driver.

It was a plum posting that paid well: 16 yuan (US$) a month.

Beijing's first Metro line was built in 1969 and ran from Beijing Railway Station to Gucheng along 16 stations. It was not for commuters, but for sightseeing.

"The interval between trains was about 15 minutes, so it was impossible for people to take the train to work," Zhang says. "Passengers with recommendation letters from their work units paid 0.1 yuan for a ticket to have a look at the underground."

The subway was also used for other purposes, Zhang says.

"After 9pm, another group of drivers would take over the trains and carry out secret tasks, such as taking deputies to meetings of the National Congress of the Communist Party of China," he says.

Zhang took classes every morning, and in the afternoon, washed trains and cleaned station floors. After three years as an apprentice, he was allowed aboard the trains.

Under supervision, he learned to drive. At 24, he passed the written and practical tests, and became a fully qualified driver.

The trains were built with 1930s' technology from the former Soviet Union and were produced by 802 Chinese factories. They often broke down and drivers had to be able to fix them.

The Beijing railway system also developed rapidly. By the end of last year, eight lines, extending 198 kilometers, had been built and new lines are planned or under construction.

New trains, with advanced Japanese technology, replaced the old former Soviet Union vehicles.

In 2000, Zhang was selected to drive the modern trains with computerized systems that enable precision stops at platforms.

The high-tech trains require a strong constitution to drive as the interval between trains can be just two minutes and 15 seconds.

Zhang winds down in his spare time with photography and he specializes in still lives, views of mountains and flowers.

He has been selected as a national model worker, an outstanding Communist Party of China member in Beijing and received other official honors.

But he claims his safety record as his greatest tribute.

"That record is sacred for me," Zhang says. "A single accident will make all those honors meaningless, so every day is a new start for me."


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