A collision between bullet trains in southern China that left at least 35 people killed and 210 others injured has triggered heated debate over safety standards, with the government on Sunday moving to address public anger by sacking three railway officials.
The death toll from Saturday’s accident, the biggest to strike China’s rapidly expanding high-speed rail network, was raised to 35 on Sunday morning - up from 16 the night before - with more than 200 others injured, the official Xinhua agency reported.
The accident occurred in Wenzhou, in southern Zhejiang province, when one bullet train lost power after being struck by lightning and was then rear-ended by a following train. Officials did not say whether the driver of the second train had been alerted to the power failure that stranded the first.
Xinhua said one coach of the first train “plunged onto the ground vertically while another coach was hanging on the bridge with one side seriously deformed.” Four cars on the second train derailed off a 20 metre-high bridge along which the trains were running.
On Sunday, the government said 58 train services were suspended following the accident, which involved Express “D trains” – the first generation of China’s fast trains.
The Chinese government is now expanding its 8,000 km high-speed rail system with more advanced “G trains”, planning to double the network's length by 2020.
Sunday’s accident, the first major mishap to hit the high-speed rail system, brought the spotlight to long-persisting safety fears among many Chinese experts, who have called on the government to slow down expansion plans. Earlier this year, the former Railway Minister, Liu Zhijun, who led the high-speed network's expansion, was sacked amid allegations of corruption.
On Sunday, the Chinese government said three railway officials, all from the Shanghai Railway Bureau, were removed from their posts following the accident.
The announcement, however, did little to quell public anger triggered by the accident, which sparked heated debate in China’s vibrant online community. On Sunday, the collision was the most discussed topic, referenced more than 4 million times, on the popular Sina Weibo microblog, a Chinese Twitter equivalent used by more than 100 million Chinese.
The train collision was, in fact, first reported on Sina Weibo, which carried the news before State media – a first for a major accident in China.
Only a minute after the 8.34 pm collision, a passenger on the first train, Yuan Xiao Yuan, posted a message on her Weibo account: “D301 [the first train] has stopped suddenly, I felt a strong collision.There is no electricity, I’m in the last compartment. I hope there is no problem!”
Many of the posts on Sunday voiced anger at falling safety standards, pointing to a string of recent problems in infrastructure projects, including a bridge collapse in Zhejiang, a bus explosion in Henan that killed 41 people, and glaring safety flaws exposed in the much-celebrated and recently unveiled world’s longest bridge, in Qingdao.
Others hit out at the government for a lack of transparency in pushing forward big-ticket projects and in handling investigations when they were faced with problems.
"This accident will end like all other tragedies – someone would get praise, someone will be punished, perhaps some scapegoat, and the government will proceed as it did before,” wrote Zhang Hongjie, a writer and historian, in a Weibo message that was forwarded by more than 60,000 people.
The Railway Ministry was widely criticised online for promptly burying the wreckage at the accident site – reportedly to ensure technology secrets would be protected – instead of preserving the evidence for a thorough investigation.
Another message, posted by Tong Da Huan, a journalist in Beijing with the Oriental Morning Post, echoed widespread sentiments that their country was pushing quick development at the cost of public safety.
"China, please slow down your high speed path, wait for your people, wait for your soul, wait for your morality, wait for your conscience,” he wrote in a post that was shared by 200,000 people.
"Don’t allow trains to derail, bridges to fall, roads to collapse or houses to cave in. Walk slowly, allow each life to have freedom and respect. And do not leave anyone behind.”