Not long ago China’s rapidly expanding high-speed rail network was a source of national pride, a feat of development that prompted a nod of approval from President Barack Obama during his State of the Union speech in January. Earlier this month a spokesman for the Ministry of Railways even crowed about the superiority of China’s latest advancements to Japan’s Shinkansen, which hasn’t had a passenger death due to derailment or crash in 47 years of operation. China’s new Beijing-Shanghai high-speed line and Japanese bullet trains “cannot be mentioned in the same breath, as many of the technological indicators used by China’s high-speed railways are far better than those used in Japan’s Shinkansen,” said the spokesman, Wang Yongping, according to the state-run China Daily.
But Saturday’s deadly train crash near the city of Wenzhou has touched off widespread anger and doubt about the safety of the showpiece infrastructure project. In online forums such as the Sina Weibo microblog service, Chinese have questioned official explanations of the disaster’s causes and the earnestness of the rescue and recovery efforts that followed. The death toll has climbed to 39, with nearly 200 injured, according to state media reports. But in a sign of the suspicion that clings to the official version of events, some have questioned whether those figures are accurate. Yang Jiang, a reporter for the Shanghai-based Xinmin Weekly, wrote on Weibo that after authorities said on Sunday morning that 35 people had died, he watched that afternoon as rescuers discovered seven more bodies, meaning the death toll should be higher than currently acknowledged.
The official explanation for the crash has been met with similar suspicions. The Ministry of Railways says the collision happened Saturday evening after a lightning strike stalled the D301 high-speed train, which was running from Beijing to Fuzhou. The D3115 slammed into the D301 from behind, sending four cars off a 15-m tall viaduct. The two trains were carrying a combined 1,630 passengers. Online some people have questioned why a lightning strike alone could stall a train, and more critically why the second train wasn’t able to stop in time. “When the train stopped in front, was the driver of the following train and the dispatching center informed?” asked one widely reposted Weibo comment. “If a train is stopped on the tracks, can’t dispatchers be automatically notified? Is this accident due to irresponsible personnel or a design problem with the trains?”
So far three officials from the Shanghai Railway Bureau have been dismissed: Li Jia, the bureau’s Communist Party Committee boss; Long Jing, the head of the bureau; and He Shengli, the bureau’s deputy chief. But those dismissals have done little to assuage public anger. Long’s replacement, An Lusheng, had been demoted in 2008 after a crash in Shandong province that killed 71. In February Liu Zhijun, who as railway minister was responsible for China’s ambitious high-speed rail development program, was dismissed on suspicion of corruption. Compounding the problems for the ministry, the launch this month of high-speed service between Beijing and Shanghai has been hampered by multiple power failures.
In recent disasters, like the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, official Chinese media outlets have played up the heroic efforts of rescuers. But the emergency response following Saturday’s crash has also raised questions. A two-year-old girl was found alive on a carriage that rescuers had been ordered to stop searching in preparation for it to be lowered off the viaduct. It was only after a police officer, Shao Yerong, defied orders and insisted the search continue that the girl, Xiang Weiyi, was discovered.
The Central Propaganda Department has issued a strict series of restrictions on coverage of the crash by Chinese news outlets, including instructions that reporters “Do not question. Do not elaborate,” according to China Digital Times, a website based at the University of California, Berkeley. But so far those restrictions have done little good. Commercial outlets including the business magazine Caixin (English-language blog of train crash reporting here) and the 21st Century Economic Herald (Chinese-language reports here) are doing aggressive reporting.
On Wednesday Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao ordered a “swift, open and transparent” investigation into the crash, state media reported. As the investigation gets underway, problems with the rail system continue. On Tuesday yet another high-speed train from Shanghai to Beijing was delayed due to unexplained electrical problems, the Beijing Morning Post reported.