China sacks officials after fatal train crash

Government fires three top railway officials, as rescue efforts continue in bid to find victims of high-speed crash.

Three of China’s senior railway officials have been sacked following a high-speed train crash that left 35 people dead, state media said.

The Chinese government relieved the head of the Shanghai railway bureau, his deputy and the bureau’s Communist Party chief of their responsibilities on Sunday, a day after the deadly crash, in which a high-speed train smashed into a stalled train and derailed.

The three will “also be subject to investigation”, China’s railways ministry said in a statement on its website.

“As leaders … they should take ultimate responsibility for the main cause of the accident,” railways ministry spokesman Wang Yongping told reporters.

The accident, which occurred on Saturday in eastern China, has raised questions about the safety of the country’s fast-growing rail network.

“There’s been a lot of talk in the country, a lot of suspicion in China about the bullet trains and in many ways this actually really confirms a lot of people’s suspicions about the safety and the technology and whether China is really ready to adopt this technology,” Al Jazeera’s Melissa Chan, reporting from the site of the accident in Wenzhou, said. 

Badly damaged cars

The accident caused two carriages on one of the high-speed trains to derail. According to the official Xinhua news agency, four cars on the second train also derailed, but it did not say how serious that incident was.

The first train was travelling from the Zhejiang provincial capital of Hangzhou; it struck the other train – which had been stalled after being struck by lightning – in Wenzhou city. One carriage from the first train fell about 20 to 30 metres from an elevated section of track.

Pictures posted on the internet showed one badly damaged car lying on its side by the bridge and the second car leaning against the bridge after landing on its end.

Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang, visiting the scene, “pledged that the investigators will find out the cause of the accident and those responsible will be seriously punished according to the law”, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

Rescue mission

Rescuers worked all night and into the morning pulling people – alive and dead – out of the trains.

“The task for us now is to clear the debris and also to check for survivors in those areas that we have not gone to,” 35-year-old rescue worker Wang Jun told the Reuters news agency. “Also, we are trying to get the railway line to be operational again.”

While the exact number of passengers is unknown, almost 200 people have been hospitalised – 12 in critical condition. Among those killed were two foreigners, including a woman in her 20’s.

A flicker of good news broke earlier on Sunday when a four-year-old girl was pulled alive from the train wreck almost 21 hours after the accident had occurred. State television said that a male toddler had also been pulled alive from the wreckage.

First generation trains

The trains involved are “D” trains, the first generation bullet train with an average speed of about 150km per hour but not as fast as the new Beijing-Shanghai line.

Xinhua said the train hit by lightning was “D3115″, and that the ministry of railways confirmed that it was hit from behind by train “D301″.

China has spent billions of dollars and plans more massive spending to link the country with a high-speed rail network.

But the former minister of railways, who oversaw much of that development, is currently under investigation and charged with corruption. The showcase high-speed line between Beijing and Shanghai has been plagued by power outages and other malfunctions since it opened on June 30.

Official plans call for China’s bullet train network to expand to 13,000km of track this year and 16,000km by 2020.

The huge spending connected with the rail expansion also has been blamed for corruption, and Railways Minister Liu Zhijun was dismissed this spring amid an investigation into unspecified corruption allegations.

No details have been released about the allegations against him, but news reports say they include kickbacks, bribes, illegal contracts and sexual liaisons.

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