China bullet train

China orders two-month safety campaign after high-speed rail crash

China has ordered a safety campaign on its railway system after a high-speed train crash that killed at least 39 people.

China’s Railways Ministry said in a statement on its website that all local railway bureaux were to draw lessons from Saturday’s accident in the eastern city of Wenzhou and immediately launch safety inspections.

More than 190 people were injured in the crash after one train rammed into the back of another which had stalled after being hit by lightning, causing six carriages to derail and four to plunge about 65ft-100ft from a viaduct.

The Railways Ministry said local railway bureaux in various cities around the country such as north-western Urumqi, south-western Kunming, Harbin in the north-east and elsewhere have already begun safety checks.

The accident was the latest blow to China’s bullet train ambitions. Designed to show off the country’s rising wealth and technological prowess, the high-speed rail project has national prestige on par with China’s space programme. But rapid expansion of the services has been dogged by concerns about safety, corruption scandals and criticism that tickets are too expensive for ordinary Chinese.

The safety campaign announcement comes amid rising public anger and suspicion over the cause of the crash and the government’s handling of the aftermath.

The sacking of three top officials at the Shanghai Railway Bureau did little to quell criticism, especially on the internet, that the government is more concerned with resuming operations on the affected line than with the loss of life.

Under particular scrutiny has been the authorities’ handling of the wreckage from the crash. Chinese reporters and bloggers have questioned the apparently quick decision to clean up the crash site. Images of excavators pushing the wreckage into pits circulated widely on the internet, triggering speculation that the burial was an attempt to cover up evidence.

The usually staid China Central Television network raised questions that challenged the government to be more transparent. “Why does the train carriage have to be buried? Before identifying the cause of the accident, we should not rule out that the train itself is problematic,” CCTV commentator Ma Guangyuan said in a programme broadcast yesterday.

Last night, workers used excavators to dismantle the damaged train carriages, parts of which were removed for further investigation, footage aired by CCTV today showed.

Beijing plans to expand the high-speed rail network - already the world’s biggest - to link far-flung regions and is also trying to sell its trains to Latin America and the Middle East. Critics say tickets are costly and the services do not really meet the needs of average travellers in many areas.

Last month, China launched to great fanfare the Beijing to Shanghai high-speed line, whose trains can travel at a top speed of 186mph. The speed was cut from the originally planned 217mph after questions were raised about safety. In less than four weeks of operation, power cuts and other malfunctions have plagued the showcase 820-mile line.

The Railways Ministry has previously apologised for the problems and said summer thunderstorms and winds were the cause in some cases. Yesterday, more than 20 trains on the high-speed line were delayed due to a power failure, the official Xinhua News Agency said.

Railways Minister Sheng Guangzu said the safety campaign would be held over two months, and apologised for the crash which was China’s worst rail accident since 2008, the People’s Daily newspaper said.

Sheng placed an emphasis on the safety of bullet trains, the report said, saying that research should be done to solve recurrent problems with the trains’ equipment.

The Railways Ministry and government officials have not explained why the second train was apparently not warned about a stalled train in its path.

The government has also moved to compensate relatives of victims. The family of one victim agreed to accept payment of 500,000 yuan, the official Xinhua News Agency said today, citing the government of Wenzhou city.

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