Rail Ministry Struggles to Clear Doubts after the Crash

The nation’s railway ministry and high-speed rail system have both come under fierce criticism after a fatal collision between two bullet trains Saturday night in Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province.

The accident killed at least 35,  and was due to an equipment failure caused by a lightning strike.

A total of 192 people were injured, ministry spokesman Wang Yongping said at a press conference on Sunday, adding that 132 injured were being treated at 11 hospitals in the city.

The wreckage of the two trains was removed from the tracks and rail operations had reopened by 7 pm on Sunday.

“China has advanced high-speed railway technology. We are still confident about that,” Wang said.

The bullet trains travel at an average speed of 200 kilometers per hour (kph), while high -speed ones run at between 250 and 300 kph.

Train D301, carrying 558 passengers from Beijing to Fuzhou, rear-ended train D3115, also heading to Fuzhou from Hangzhou with 1,072 people on board, at 8:50 pm Saturday on a bridge close to Wenzhou South Station.

D3115 was forced to halt on the 15-meter-high bridge due to lightning, the ministry said. 

It was unknown how long the D3115 had been stopped before the collision. The train had been scheduled to stop at Wenzhou South Station at 7:57 pm.

Four of the D301’s carriages fell off the bridge, while two of the D3115’s carriages were derailed but did not fall off.

Hundreds of Wenzhou residents flooded to the city’s blood bank on Sunday night to donate their blood in hope of helping the victims.

A local resident, surnamed Zhao, who was among the first to join the rescue efforts, told the Global Times that he saw the train stopped on the track as storms thundered overheard.

“When we heard a very loud crash, I asked my neighbors to come with me to help,” Zhao said, who helped six passengers out of their carriage although only one of these survived.

“It was a total disaster, and the situation worsened when the ambulance arrived only 20 minutes after we called for help due to heavy rain and congested traffic,” Zhao added.

Three officials with the Shanghai Railway Bureau were sacked on Sunday as the investigation got underway.

Long Jing, head of the Shanghai Railway Bureau, Li Jia, head of the bureau’s Communist Party of China, and deputy bureau chief, He Shengli, were removed from their positions, the Ministry of Railways said on Sunday. 

The ministry spokesman Wang offered his condolences to the victims.

When asked about the compensation plans, Wang said unified standards will be applied for both Chinese and foreign passengers.

A Russian and a US passenger were among the injured.

This collision is the latest and most serious accident to put China’s high-speed railway system in doubt.

A high-speed train heading for Shanghai halted for over two hours in Jinan, Shandong Province on July 10, only ten days after the line’s debut.

Another five malfunctions happened in the next four days along the Beijing-Shanghai line, raising doubts about the safety of the trains, Beijing Youth Daily reported.

Wang Mengshu, a professor at Beijing Jiaotong University, said that a false operation by the engineers might have caused the collision.

“Bullet trains are equipped with automatic warning systems that alert the engineer to decelerate when another train is spotted 4 kilometers ahead. When it is 2 kilometers away, the engineer would be warned to brake,” Wang said.

However, the brake must be manually operated as there is no automatic braking system and therefore the judgment of the engineers must be relied upon, Wang said.

“The accident reflected the technological and managerial flaws of bullet trains. Nevertheless, public confidence over bullet and high-speed trains should not be daunted by one accident,” Wang said.

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