By Fayen Wong
WENZHOU, China (Reuters) - Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao Thursday vowed a thorough and transparent probe into last week's train crash that killed at least 39 people, visiting the crash site in a bid to calm public outrage at the government's handling of the disaster.
Wen's trip to Wenzhou in a relatively prosperous commercial corner of eastern China, and rare news conference, was yet another sign at how worried the Communist Party is about losing its credibility, which could fan challenges to its rule, after at least 39 people were killed in the nation's worst railway accident since 2008.
The accident, which occurred when a high-speed train rammed into a stalled train late Saturday, triggered angry accusations that officials had covered up facts and stifled media coverage to protect an ambitious rail expansion plan and the Party's image of unruffled control.
Efforts by the propaganda department to bar Chinese media from questioning official accounts of the accident fueled the anger and suspicion, especially about the death toll and rescue efforts.
A Chinese railway research institute Thursday took responsibility on for a flaw in signaling equipment that led to the accident, a rare admission of guilt by a state body, and the authorities have promised a full review of safety procedures.
Three mid-level railway officials have also been sacked.
At a hastily arranged media event, Wen acknowledged the government should have provided the public with a swift explanation for the accident, which occurred when a high-speed train rammed into a stalled train late Saturday.
"Society and the public had many suspicions about the cause of the accident and the way it was handled," Wen said, standing in front of the bridge where the crash happened.
"I believe that we should earnestly listen to the public's views, treat them seriously and provide the public with a responsible explanation."
Wen, who is aged 68 and will retire late next year, said he could not visit the accident site in eastern Zhejiang province earlier because he had been sick -- an unusual public admission of ill health by one of China's senior leaders.
"The doctor only today reluctantly allowed me to check out of hospital," Wen said, looking a little worn.
He did not specify the nature of the illness that had kept him in hospital for 11 days, though state media reported he had met several foreign dignitaries during that period.
State television later showed Wen visiting crash victims in hospital, looking visibly moved as he held the hand of a child. He then met a large group of family members, bowing to them and offering his sympathies.
But the charm offensive appeared to ring hollow with some Wenzhou citizens, who brushed off Wen's remarks as meaningless though, underscoring the challenge Beijing faces to win back the public's confidence.
"Premier Wen may have made a lot of promises on having a thorough investigation to find the culprits, but it feels like it is just the usual rhetoric," complained Chen Nian.
Soon after the crash, domestic media had blamed foreign technology. But Thursday, railway authorities said a signal, that should have turned red after lightning hit the train that stalled, remained green, and rail staff then failed to see something was amiss, the state-run Xinhua news agency said.
The Beijing National Railway Research & Design Institute of Signals and Communications Co. Ltd., issued an apology and said it would "accept any punishment that is due," Xinhua reported, citing an institute statement.
"Safety overrides all else, and high-speed rail safety is of even more overriding importance," the statement said.
The final results of the probe into the crash would be released by mid-September, the state news agency said. The Railway Ministry has also ordered a two-month safety review of railway operations.
"Whether there are problems with machinery and equipment, or administrative problems, or problems from the manufacturing, we will investigate them to the very bottom," said Wen.
"If the investigation turns up hidden corruption, we will also deal with this according to the law and there will not be any soft-pedaling."
Wen and President Hu Jintao had vowed to preside over a more open and accountable government after Chinese medical officials and local governments were blamed for covering up the spread of a deadly SARS respiratory epidemic in 2002 and 2003.
But those vows rub up against the government's own strict censorship and wariness of exposing failings and missteps to uncontrolled public opinion.
Wednesday, more than 100 relatives of passengers who were killed in the crash held a protest outside a railway station, angered by the lack of accountability over the incident, state media reported.
The Global Times, a tabloid owned by Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily, said the protesters demanded direct talks with officials from the Railways Ministry.
"They claimed that the bullet trains were built with advanced technology. How could lightning paralyze them so easily?" the newspaper quoted Wang Hui, whose husband died in the accident, as saying.
The newspaper showed photographs on its website of dozens of people with some holding a banner that said: "Disclose the true reason behind the July 23 train crash and respect the dignity of victims."
(Additional reporting by Sui-Lee Wee, Jim Bai, Chris Buckley, Sally Huang, Ben Blanchard and Sabrina Mao in Beijing; editing by Miral Fahmy)