Train Wreck in China Raises Questions of Safety

BEIJING — A train accident in eastern China over the weekend has added to a national sense that safety is taking a back seat to the country’s spectacular infrastructure development

The wreck on Saturday night killed 35 and injured 210 after a high-speed train lost power for more than 20 minutes and then was rear-ended by another train, according to the Xinhua news agency. Six cars derailed and two fell off a viaduct near the city of Wenzhou.

By Sunday night, rescuers said they did not expect to recover more bodies, although some of the dead were still being identified.

Government officials responded switftly, with President Hu Jintao calling the rescue work a national priority. China’s railway minister, Sheng Guangzu, rushed to the scene to supervise operations. Mr. Sheng took control of the powerful ministry earlier this year after his predecessor and several associates were fired and investigated for corruption.

But China’s vocal online bloggers expressed anger at the priorities highlighted by the rescue.

Photos on the popular Weibo microblogging service showed backhoes burying the wrecked train near the site. Critics said the wreckage needed to be carefully examined for causes of the malfunction, but the railway ministry said that the trains contain valuable national technology and could not be left in the open in case it fell into the wrong hands.

Foreign companies maintain that some crucial technology was stolen from their imported trains. But more importantly to domestic audiences is the perception of a coverup. Initial reports of how the accident occurred are already being partly contradicted by reports in the official media.

The Railway Ministry issued a statement Saturday night that said the first train had been struck by lightning and lost power. It did not explain why the second train was not signaled to stop. In addition, new reports on Xinhua indicate that the first train had started to move by the time it was struck. The ministry has not explained the discrepency.

The wreck is one of several high-profile public transportation accidents in China recently. Early Friday, 41 people died when an overloaded bus caught fire in central China’s Henan province.

Earlier this month, an escalator at a subway station in Beijing collapsed, killing one and injuring 28. Last week alone, four bridges collapsed in various Chinese cities.

Signaling government concern over growing public unease, the government issued a directive Saturday calling for “intensified efforts in preventing major deadly accidents.”

Discussion of accidents in China, however, is haphazard. In an unusually frank editorial in the Communist Party paper, People’s Daily earlier this month, a commentator said China needed “zero tolerance for concealing major accidents.” But the commentator said many disasters are covered up, such as a major oil spill that was hidden from public view for over a month.

The sense that transparency and safety is secondary to other concerns was present in many Weibo postings Sunday. One blogger in particular posted an eloquent appeal for more care and caution in China’s rapid development:

“China, please stop your flying pace, wait for your people, wait for your soul, wait for your morality, wait for your conscience! Don’t let the train run out off track, don’t let the bridges collapse, don’t let the roads become traps, don’t let houses become ruins. Walk slowly, allowing every life to have freedom and dignity. No one should be left behind by our era.”

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