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Crash Raises Concern Over China’s Bullet Train Plans

Filed by KOSU News in World News.
July 25, 2011

The bullet train crash that killed dozens of people in China this weekend has underscored doubts about the safety of the country’s rapidly-expanding high speed rail network.

One train rammed into the back of another that had stalled after being hit by lightning Saturday in China’s deadliest rail accident since 2008. Six carriages derailed and four fell about 65 to 100 feet from a viaduct. Nearly 40 people were killed, and more than 190 others were injured.

The U.S. embassy said two Americans were among the dead, and Railways Minister Sheng Guangzu has apologized to the victims of the crash and their families.

Amid the devastation, there was one piece of good news: A 2-year-old girl was reportedly pulled alive from the wreckage almost a day after the crash.

State broadcaster CCTV reported Monday that the girl pulled from one of the derailed carriages 21 hours after the crash had undergone a three-hour operation. It said she had suffered lung, kidney and leg injuries and is now in intensive care. Her parents died in the crash.

But even this has caused disquiet, coming after the official announcement that there were no survivors left in the carriages. In a poll, 93 percent of respondents said the government’s handling of the accident had been very poor, showing “disrespect to human life.”

Bulldozers destroyed the crashed train carriages Sunday night, sparking fears of a cover-up.

The Railways Ministry and government officials haven’t explained why the second train was apparently not warned there was a stalled train in its path.

One expert said he thought human error may have been involved.

“I think the problem may have come from the mistakes of dispatching management, instead of technological failure,” said Qi Qixin, a professor at the Transportation Research Institute of Beijing University of Technology. “The system should have an ability to automatically issue a warning or even stop a train under such circumstances,” he said.

The accident is the latest blow to China’s bullet train ambitions. Designed to show off the country’s rising wealth and technological prowess, the prestige attached to the high-speed rail project is on a par with China’s space program.

Beijing plans to expand the high-speed rail network — already the world’s biggest — to link far-flung regions and is also trying to sell its trains to Latin America and the Middle East. But critics say ticket costs are too high and that the services do not really meet the needs of average travelers in many areas.

Last month, China launched to great fanfare the Beijing to Shanghai high-speed line, whose trains can travel at a top speed of 186 miles per hour. The speed was cut from the originally planned 217 mph after questions were raised about safety.

Saturday’s accident involved the first-generation bullet trains, which were launched in 2007 and have a top speed of 155 miles per hour — slower than the new Beijing to Shanghai trains.

NPR’s Louisa Lim reported from Beijing for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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