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Train Wreck in China Heightens Unease on Safety Standards

A deadly train accident in eastern China has added to a national sense of unease that safety may have been sacrificed in the country’s rush to modernize.

Rescue operations continue on the wreckages of two high-speed trains that collided in the town of Shuangyu, on the outskirts of Wenzhou in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang on July 24, 2011.
AFP | Getty Images
Rescue operations continue on the wreckages of two high-speed trains that collided in the town of Shuangyu, on the outskirts of Wenzhou in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang on July 24, 2011.

A man at a hospital on Sunday was among 210 injured in the crash. Discussions online expressed fears that safety had become secondary to development.

By Sunday evening, 43 bodies had been recovered from the wreckage near Wenzhou, where a high-speed train that had lost power was struck from behind by another train on Saturday night, the official Xinhua news agency reported. Six cars derailed and four fell off a viaduct in the accident, which also injured 210 people.

In official, government-approved accounts of the accident, officials moved quickly to take charge of the situation. On Sunday morning, President Hu Jintao declared that rescue efforts were a top priority. The government also announced that three senior officials in the Railway Ministry had been fired. The railway minister was said to have taken charge of the rescue operation.

But competing narratives already began emerging Sunday. On the feisty microblogging site Sina Weibo, postings said that the minister, Sheng Guangzu, who took over this year when his predecessor was fired for corruption, had been cornered by angry journalists after he dodged interview requests.

Other reports on the site said the ministry was burying parts of the wrecked trains near the site, prompting critics to say that the wreckage needed to be carefully examined for causes of the malfunction. The Railway Ministry said the trains contained valuable “national level” technology that could be stolen and thus must be buried — even though foreign companies have long complained that the technology was actually stolen from their trains.

More confusion emerged over efforts to portray nature as the culprit in the accident. Xinhua reported Saturday that the first train lost power when it was hit by lightning, and national television broadcasts emphasized pictures of lightning storms in the area. But later reports by Xinhua said the supposedly stalled train was under way when it was struck by the other train. Also left unexplained was why railway signals did not stop the second train before it hit the first one.

An editorial with the headline “No Development Without Safety” on People’s Net, the government-run Web site affiliated with the party’s leading newspaper, People’s Daily, said the Railway Ministry had warned of the risks of lightning in a notice four days before the crash. It said new procedures were needed to prevent accidents. But it noted that these measures had not been put into effect, implying that the railway had no emergency plans for trains struck by lightning.

The editorial also made a broader point that spoke to widespread public dissatisfaction over safety.

“From public transport safety to coal mine safety to food safety, these accidents show that theoretically there is no problem with the conception of safety plans,” the influential site said. “But they are not executed properly.”

The train collision was one of several high-profile public transportation accidents in China recently. Early Friday morning, 41 people were killed when an overloaded bus caught fire in central Henan Province. Earlier this month, an escalator at a new subway station in Beijing collapsed, killing one person and injuring 28. Last week alone, four bridges collapsed in various Chinese cities.

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

The discussion of accidents in China, however, is haphazard. In an unusually frank editorial in People’s Daily this month, a commentator said that many disasters were covered up but that the country needed “zero tolerance for concealing major accidents,” like a large oil spill that was hidden from the public for more than a month.

Fears that transparency and safety have become secondary to other concerns was present in many Weibo postings on 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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