It has been four days since one high-speed train rear-ended another in East China causing the death of at least 35 people, and injuring some 200 others.
Only three weeks earlier, the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed railway was boasting about being the longest and most quickly constructed in the world, as it was inaugurated with great fanfare. Yet numerous failures occurred within days of the operation, capped by the deadly accident that confirmed the Chinese public’s doubts about the security of the country’s high-speed rail, and sparking a crisis at the Chinese Ministry of Railways.
Up to now, both the state media and the Ministry of Railways claim that the accident was caused by lightning that struck and stalled the first train. Three senior officials were soon fired. Public opinion is outraged at the way the rail authority and other public officials have dealt with the incident.
It took 24 hours before the Ministry of Railways scheduled any sort of press conference to address the deadly July 23 incident that occurred near Wenzhou City. But when dozens of reporters arrived at the conference, only four designated media were allowed to enter the venue. There were more “leaders” present than reporters.
Moreover, in the conference, nothing about the accident was explained. All we learned is that Long Jing, the Secretary of the Shanghai Railway Bureau, was sacked by Sheng Guangzu, Minister of Railways, who has taken office only a few months ago.
It seems that everybody knows that Long Jing is just a scapegoat.
Truth from survivors' cell phone
The Railways Ministry spokesman and other public officials were said to have left the venue via the rear door at the end of the conference when the reporters swarmed forward to ask questions. The reporters were immediately pushed away by security guards. Even today no list of the dead has been issued.
After the fatal incident occurred, it was the surviving passengers themselves, stuck in the train carriages, who transmitted the news through their cell phones. It was more than one hour before the government media responded to the incident and started releasing very limited information about it, while CCTV, a state television channel, released the news hours later when messages were already widespread on the Internet. Yet what CCTV gave us was just clichés. It did not address clearly how the crash happened, instead the “instructions of the leadership” were delivered fulsomely and none of their names were left out.
On Sunday morning, less than 12 hours after the accident, the search and rescue team rashly announced that there was no more sign of survivors and started moving the fallen carriages. Large machinery was brought in to cut and crush the fallen carriages. Yet numerous passengers continued to be found still alive.
The most chilling question to imagine: What if the carriages being discarded still contained living passengers? In a 1998 crash in Germany the search and rescue lasted for 72 hours, while in China it is barely 12.
China has invested heavily in building a train network in this most populous region of the world. It will stretch to more than 12,000 kilometers of track by the end of 2012. When President Hu Jintao paid a visit to the US last January, China’s largest train manufacturer, CSR Corp, signed letters of intent for ventures with General Electric (GE), aiming to gain the business of supplying America’s high-speed rail investment plan unveiled by President Barack Obama early this year.
However, behind the apparently “leaping” development of high-speed rail, many serious problems are emerging. The Ministry of Railways has long been considered to be a closed and kingdom-like “Power Ministry”. It even has its own separate police and court system, as some media call it: “competitor and referee in one.”
In addition to scandalous corruption cases involving the former Minister of the Railways and a Deputy Chief Engineer in the past six months, a series of safety incidents of this much-hyped rail system have taken place and caused many serious questions. Just last month, Zhou Yimin, one of the former Deputy Chief Engineers, revealed to the press that due to Liu Zhijun, the former Minister currently under corruption investigation, when China bought the EMU CRH380 prototype vehicles from German’s Siemens, it was clearly stressed in the contract that “the maximum speed is 300 kilometers per hour”, while Liu wanted to create “the world’s fastest train” at the expense of its original safety design.
Zhou Yimin further pointed out that both Japan and Germany, which have joint venture relations with the Chinese train manufacturers, have sharply criticised China’s claim of its capacity for running at 350km. They say that safety factors are being sacrificed. Although Japan and Germany have experimented safety speed tests of over 400 km/hr, “the experimental speed and the operating speed are two different things, yet China pretends that it has a break-through in its technology”, Zhou said. Widely circulated rumors on the Chinese internet also say some engineers working for the Ministry claim that they’ll never take the high-speed rail to avoid risking their own lives.
China’s high-speed rail construction and testing time were compressed in order to “lead the world” or to coincide with certain meaningful dates, for instance the inauguration of the most feted Beijing-Shanghai line to celebrate the Chinese Communist Party’s 90 years anniversary. Even the drivers’ training time has been compressed to just ten days.
Original material culled from E.O. and translated by Laura Lin
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Read the original story in Chinese here.