Premier Wen Jiabao, in a rare news conference Thursday at the site of last weekend’s deadly train wreck in eastern China, promised an “open and transparent” investigation of an accident that has prompted questions about the safety of the country’s high-speed rail system and the speed of the government’s response.
Wen acknowledged doubts about the handling of the collision that killed at least 39 people and injured about 200 in Wenzhou, a city in Zhejiang province. But he pledged that the government would “carefully listen to public opinions and reach a responsible result” that he later said would “stand the test of history.”
Wen’s remarks came on the same day state media reported the Shanghai Railway Bureau had determined that “design flaws” in the track’s signaling equipment led to Saturday’s tragedy. The official New China News Agency had previously reported the death toll was 43 but lowered the figure after authorities said they had counted some victims twice.
It’s unclear whether initial reports of lightning hitting a train that was later rear-ended were still considered accurate.
State media reported Thursday that lightning struck the signal system at Wenzhou South Railway Station, causing controls to malfunction and preventing lights along the track from turning red to alert an oncoming train that another train was stalled ahead.
The two bullet trains traveling on a viaduct collided, hurling four carriages filled with passengers onto the ground more than 60 feet below.
China Rail Signal and Communication issued an apology for the accident on its website Thursday. “We will be brave when it comes to taking responsibility and be ready for any punishment that we deserve,” it said.
At least one expert has said more could have been done to ensure China’s rail system wasn’t so vulnerable to electric storms.
He Jinliang, a professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing and director of a national advisory committee on lightning prevention technology, said in an interview Tuesday that the Ministry of Railways rejected his proposal to install wires along electrical pylons that would divert lightning from trains.
Lightning has also bedeviled the rail authority along its new showcase line between Beijing and Shanghai, knocking out power and creating dozens of delays as recently as Monday.
“After seeing so many problems, the rail system may not have paid enough attention to lightning prevention measures,” said He. “If they had done enough research, this probably could have been avoided.”
The incident has sullied the country’s ambitious high-speed rail program, which includes domestically made trains China has had hopes of exporting. Only days before the collision, a spokesman for the Ministry of Railways was touting the technology as the most advanced in the world.
The perceived hubris has only inflamed a public that has accused authorities of mishandling the crisis.
Suspicions arose after workers began burying parts of the wreckage a day after the accident. A toddler was also found alive hours after officials had called off their search and rescue efforts. The rail line was reopened less than two days after the crash, drawing charges that the investigation was being rushed.
“Their focus should have been trying to determine the cause of the accident, not getting train service running again,” said Carol Pan, 21, whose best friend was killed in the collision.
In a sign of how far public opinion has swayed against the government, China’s generally restrained state-controlled media have demonstrated an unusual level of feistiness.
The People’s Daily, a Communist Party mouthpiece, ran a commentary Thursday entitled, “Safety must come first during China’s development,” calling for an end to “blood-smeared GDP.”
Meanwhile, China Central Television news program host, Qiu Qiming, addressed an ongoing crisis of confidence in China after a series of safety scandals.
“Can you give us a glass of milk that’s safe?” Qiu asked. “Can you provide us a building that won’t fall? Can you not try to bury the carriages first when a major accident happens? Can you give everyone a basic sense of security? China, please slow down. If you go too fast, please do not leave your soul behind.”
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