March 9, 2021

Crash Raises Questions on China’s Push to Build High-Speed Passenger Rail Lines

Those concerns come as Beijing is investigating corruption accusations against high-ranking railway officials and allegations that some unqualified companies may have been awarded contracts for part of the $400 billion project.

High-speed rail’s excellent safety record in Europe and in Japan — not a single fatality has occurred in Japan since the technology was introduced in the 1960s — has led some experts to ask if China is moving too swiftly to build about 12,000 miles of track by 2020.

“There appear to have been some irregularities in the high-speed rail program,” said Richard DiBona, a transportation specialist at LLA Consultancy in Hong Kong. “Maybe this was corruption or substandard work, or perhaps things were put into place too fast.”

The government’s only explanation for Saturday’s accident has been that a lightning strike disabled equipment, allowing a train carrying about 550 passengers to strike the rear of another train with more than 1,000 riders on a viaduct near the city of Wenzhou in Zhejiang Province. Eight cars derailed, with four hurtling off a bridge.

Immediately after the accident the government dismissed three more railway officials without explanation, and announced a thorough investigation into its cause. But a news conference scheduled for Tuesday was postponed.

Several rail experts have said they doubt that lightning was the sole cause of the crash. They questioned why safety mechanisms failed to warn or slow the second train.

“This is extremely rare,” said Vukan R. Vuchic, a rail expert at the University of Pennsylvania. “I’ve never heard of lightning doing that, but if it did, everything else would stop too. And the signal system should keep trains at a safe distance.”

In China, a torrent of public criticism continued Tuesday, with bloggers and citizens asking why the government was not more forthcoming about the cause of the crash, why parts of the wreckage were buried at the site and why a toddler was found alive in the wreck even after railway authorities had said there were no further signs of life.

The government moved swiftly to compensate victims’ families, agreeing to pay one family 500,000 renminbi, or more than $77,000, according to the official Xinhua news agency. The government described bonuses of 10,000 renminbi, or more than $1,500, for families who signed compensation agreements quickly.

The state-run news media have played down questions about the cause of the accident, but newspapers published accounts from two railroad employees.

Jiang Xiaomei, identified as the manager of the train that was struck from behind, was quoted by a state-run newspaper as saying that a thunderstorm had forced her train to slow down and to wait about 20 minutes at its previous station. Six minutes after her train left the station, she said, it slowly came to a stop on the tracks and paused for five or six minutes. It had just started moving again when the other train plowed into it.

After being thrown to the ground, she told the newspaper, she got up and tried to contact the engineer and conductor, but the intercom was dead. Half the cars had emergency lighting; the rest were pitch black, she said, so passengers opened their laptops and cellphones for light.

A railway communications officer, identified only as Mr. Liu, told The Beijing Times that after the accident, he was sent to check the communications system of the first train, which was working, he said, raising the question of where the communication breakdown occurred.

A schoolteacher from Fuzhou, Zhu Yalan, 26, said she was traveling in the third car of the second train when it rammed into the first train.

David Barboza reported from Shanghai, and Sharon LaFraniere from Beijing. Li Bibo and Adam Century contributed research from Beijing, and Xu Yan from Shanghai.

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