Death toll in crash of bullet trains in China reaches at least 35

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 24, 2011 

BEIJING — The death toll from a crash of two bullet trains in eastern China climbed to at least 35 on Sunday as questions continued to grow about the nation's ambitious and controversial plans to extend its high-speed rail system.

Xinhua, the state newswire, said that the first train had "allegedly" been hit by lightning, causing it to stall before a second train smashed into it from behind Saturday night. In addition to the dead, 210 people were injured in the collision in the coastal province of Zhejiang, which sent four cars flying off a bridge and derailed two more.

Neither Xinhua nor other official media gave an explanation for why the second train wasn't informed that a train had stopped on the tracks up ahead.

State news reported the railway ministry demanded an investigation of what caused the wreck, and three railway officials in Shanghai were removed from their positions.

But the accident seemed sure to add to recent public suspicions about the scale and speed with which Chinese officials have pushed expansion of high-speed rail projects.

When video was posted on Sunday of the crushed train cars being moved by construction excavators, apparently to bury debris, some Chinese online users suggested that evidence was being covered up to avoid a thorough inquiry.

While China's rail boom is frequently pointed to as a sign of the nation's increasing economic might, plans to lace the country with 10,000 miles of high-speed train line by 2020 have been hit with a series of scandals and problems.

That's given rise to worries of corruption and malfeasance on the part of those who oversee an infrastructure project with costs that have reached $100 billion a year.

The former railways minister, Liu Zhijun, was removed from his job in February following accusations that he'd taken kickbacks of more than $122 million.

Amid questions about construction quality, the replacement minister said in April that new bullet trains would be running at slower speeds than previously announced, and first-generation high-speed trains, like those in the crash on Saturday, would drop their speeds as well.

Late last month, the government heralded the opening of a centerpiece bullet train route between Beijing and Shanghai, built at a cost of more than $32 billion. It experienced four shutdowns in a single week's time this month due to power failures.

Railway officials said last week that they will be cutting two trains from the Beijing-Shanghai line because of lower than expected usage.

The technical problems are compounded by resentment among some ordinary Chinese that high-speed tickets are unaffordable.

State-controlled media reported last Thursday that almost 67 percent of Chinese in a recent poll said they thought the rail network was being developed too quickly. More than 36 percent said they wouldn't take the trains because they're expensive. About 23 percent said they wouldn't be riding because of safety concerns.

On Sunday, Chinese officials said that following the train wreck, service for 58 trains had been suspended. Xinhua reported that the railway ministry promised a full refund for those affected.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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