Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Criticism spreads as China buries car in high-speed train disaster


Criticism within China over a high-speed train accident that killed 35 has shifted from attacks against a lack of safety measures to accusations of a government cover-up.

Early on July 24, less than a day after the accident on the Hexie (harmony) train line, seven loading shovels were seen digging a hole to bury the front car of the bullet train that had rear-ended a train that had stopped due to a power outage caused by lightning.

While the Hexie name and CRH letters indicating the train was part of the high-speed railway system were visible at first, the loading shovels crushed the car to erase such labels.

"Is this an attempt to not inform us about the real cause of the accident?" said a 37-year-old woman who was injured in the accident and whose friend's daughter died.

Police officials would not confirm that the train car had been buried. But a number of railway sources said it was only natural to bury anything that could not be removed from the accident site.

The three other train cars that fell from the elevated tracks but maintained their outer form, as well as the two cars that had stopped on the tracks were left as they were.

During the three hours when the front car was being buried, there were no signs that any expert entered the car to investigate the cause of the accident on the line that Chinese officials claim is the world's fastest.

"In order to determine the cause of the accident, the train driver's seat should normally be thoroughly investigated," said a photographer for a local newspaper who covered the scene.

But a railway official said the investigation "was completed by that time."

The collision occurred several kilometers north of Wenzhou South station in Zhejiang province.

"The heavy rain and lightning (on Saturday) caused a power outage in the area," said Yang Wanling, 38, a factory worker who witnessed the accident. "A train came to a stop on the elevated tracks. Another train approached the first train at an incredible speed."

After the collision, several cars of the oncoming train fell from the elevated tracks.

A 29-year-old woman who also saw the accident from her workplace said, "About a dozen minutes or so after the first train stopped, a train approaching from the back of the first train collided with the train, rose on top of it and fell over."

A 36-year-old man from Fujian province who was sitting in the second car of the rushing train said: "I had no idea what happened. There was no announcement about any possible danger."

The man also said he did not feel the train slowing down.

"It was probably traveling at a speed as fast as 200 kph," he said.

After the train shook, the man realized he had fallen on shattered glass. The car fell off the elevated track and the man injured his hip. A colleague died in the accident.

A resident who lived near the scene said, "There was blood everywhere in the train car, with one girl's leg severed."

The accident stunned Chinese government leaders.

In a meeting on July 24, Premier Wen Jiabao told Yohei Kono, the former Lower House speaker, "I did not sleep at all last night because I had to deal with the accident."

An editorial in the July 24 edition of the Jinghua Shibao (Beijing Times) criticized the central government for ignoring safety in its bid to promote a high-speed rail service.

"The train is not running in a laboratory," the editorial said. "It is a public service in which the lives of the people are at stake."

The editorial also pointed out that lessons were not learned from the various problems that occurred on the line linking Beijing and Shanghai that began operations in late June.

The Jinghua Shibao is affiliated with the People's Daily, the organ of the Communist Party.

The unusual criticism of the government followed similar but much more heated comments that appeared on the Internet after the Railways Ministry said only that the cause of the accident was lightning.

"I cannot ride on a train that will malfunction every time there's a lightning storm," one poster said.

Another post said, "This is a human disaster caused by corrupt bureaucrats."

Others posts said the underlying cause was China's rush to become No. 1 in the world, even at the expense of safety.

"It was all done to overtake the gross domestic product of advanced economies and people's lives were used," said one.

Another said, "Being the fastest in the world is meaningless to common people who have no say."

Others urged Wen to go immediately to the accident site.

In response to the criticism, Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang, who is in charge of transportation issues, was dispatched on July 24 to the site.

At a July 24 news conference, Wang Yongping of the Railways Ministry apologized to victims of the accident. High-ranking ministry officials in charge of the train line were relieved of their duties the same day.

"Unless we handle the accident appropriately and suppress public opinion, there could be a spread of government criticism," a Communist Party source said.

Yet reports--and additional criticism--are spreading about the burying of the train car.

The Chinese government is seeking to export its high-speed railway technology, but it is a very complicated mixture of technology imported from Japan, France, Germany and Canada with rollingstock manufactured in China.

The signal system used a Chinese method that was based on the French system.

Because existing railway lines were in part speeded up, cargo trains and regular lines travel over the same tracks in some portions of the network.

Chinese authorities had emphasized the speed of the Hexie (harmony) train line, with some boasting that Chinese train technology had far surpassed Japan's Shinkansen.

Such boasts are no longer heard.

"We still are behind the advanced nations in terms of maturity and experience," a high-ranking Railways Ministry official admitted.

Zhao Jian, a professor at Beijing Jiaotong University, said, "Choosing development over rationality in railway administration has come back to haunt us."

Japanese officials involved in Shinkansen operations said it would be unthinkable for such an accident to occur in Japan.

Japan uses a system that automatically stops a Shinkansen train if it gets too close to another train.

A railway source said the lightning in China may have knocked out the system that passes on information to other trains.

Concerning the burying of a train car after the accident, a source in Japan who investigates train accidents said, "Investigative agencies in China are not very independent, and I have heard that in many cases they are influenced by what the government wants done."

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