Crash raises doubts about China's fast rail plans

July 25, 2011 - 3:29 AM
China Train Crash

RETRANSMISSION FOR ALTERNATIVE CROP - Emergency workers and people work to help passengers from the wreckage of train after two carriages from a high-speed train derailed and fell off a bridge in Wenzhou in east China's Zhejiang province Saturday July 23, 2011. A Chinese news agency says there is no immediate word on casualties.(AP Photo) CHINA OUT

BEIJING (AP) — Doubts about China's breakneck plans to expand high-speed rail across the country have been underscored by a bullet train wreck that killed at least 36 people.

Railways Minister Sheng Guangzu has apologized to the victims of Saturday's crash, and their families. The U.S. Embassy in Beijing said two U.S. citizens were among the dead.

A train rammed into the back of another one that stalled after being hit by lightning in China's deadliest rail accident since 2008. Six carriages derailed and four fell about 65 to 100 feet (20 to 30 meters) from a viaduct. More than 190 people were injured.

The Railway Ministry and government officials haven't explained why the second train was apparently not warned there was a stalled train in its path.

One expert said he thought human error may have been involved.

"I think the problem may have come from the mistakes of dispatching management, instead of technological failure," said Qi Qixin, a professor at the Transportation Research Institute of Beijing University of Technology. "The system should have an ability to automatically issue a warning or even stop a train under such circumstances," he said.

The accident is the latest blow to China's bullet train ambitions. Designed to show off the country's rising wealth and technological prowess, the national prestige attached to the high-speed rail project is on a par with China's space program.

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.

Last month, it launched to great fanfare the Beijing to Shanghai high-speed line, whose trains can travel at a top speed of 186 miles (300 kilometers) per hour. The speed was cut from the originally planned 217 mph (350 kph) after questions were raised about safety.

In less than four weeks of operation, power outages and other malfunctions have plagued the showcase 820-mile (1,318-kilometer) line. The Railways Ministry previously apologized for the problems and said that summer thunderstorms and winds were the cause in some cases.

Official plans call for China's bullet train network to expand to 8,000 miles (13,000 kilometers) of track this year and 10,000 miles (16,000 kilometers) by 2020.

China's trains are based on Japanese, French and German technology, but the manufacturers are trying to sell to Latin America and the Middle East. That has prompted complaints that Beijing is violating the spirit of licenses with foreign providers by reselling technology that was meant to be used only in China.

Saturday's accident involved the first-generation bullet trains, which were launched in 2007 and have a top speed of 155 miles (250 kilometers) per hour — slower than the new Beijing to Shanghai trains.

The tragedy pummeled railway shares with China Railway Group sliding 7.7 percent. The high-speed rail woes added to negative sentiment from the U.S. debt deadlock, sending the Shanghai Composite Index down 3 percent to 2,688.75.

The Ministry of Railways said in a statement on its website Monday that the accident had killed 36 people and injured 192.

The crash happened when a bullet train traveling south from the Zhejiang provincial capital of Hangzhou lost power in a lightning strike, stalled and was hit from behind by a second train in Wenzhou city.

Three top officials at the Shanghai Railway Bureau were sacked after the accident, and state-controlled media have raised questions, especially as rail travel moves hundreds of millions of people a year.

In an editorial entitled 'Train crash lesson for railway progress,' the Global Times said the accident should be "a bloody lesson for the entire railway industry in China."

The newspaper said the collision casts doubt on China's high-speed railway expansion plans because the country "lacks experience" as it seeks to join the top ranks of railway engineering.

It said China's high-speed railway has become "the newest target of public criticism," adding the accident should lead to "safer, not slower, railway transportation."

China's transportation authority ordered local departments at an emergency meeting Sunday to launch thorough safety overhauls to "resolutely curb" severe traffic accidents, the official Xinhua News Agency reported. The order follows a number of recent accidents, including a fire on a long-distance bus on Friday that killed 41 people.

State broadcaster CCTV reported Monday that a 2-year-old girl pulled from one of the derailed carriages 21 hours after the crash had undergone a three-hour operation. It said she had suffered lung, kidney and leg injuries and is now in intensive care. Her parents died in the crash.

In April 2008,a regular-speed train traveling from Beijing to the eastern coastal city of Qingdao derailed and crashed into another train, killing 72 people and injuring 416.