BEIJING — A Chinese railway official said Thursday that the deadly crash between high-speed trains last weekend was due to design flaws in crucial equipment that failed to flash the correct signals after a lightning strike.
Those remarks and others by Chinese leaders did little to ease mounting confusion and anger over Saturday’s accident, which killed at least 39 people and wounded more than 190.
The wreck, in which one train smashed into another from behind, has tapped a deep vein of discontent in China over corruption in big-ticket infrastructure projects and elsewhere, and is fueling a belief among some that the government doesn't offer much protection to ordinary Chinese. It’s not yet clear whether the controversy will become a watershed moment or simply blow over, but there are signs that the usual methods that China’s leadership uses to tamp down dissent are failing.
The remarks by An Lusheng, of the Shanghai Railway Bureau, suggested that it was the signaling system that was knocked out by lightning Saturday night, but didn't make clear what caused the lead train to stop in the first place. State media had reported earlier that the front train was slowed or halted when it was hit by lightning.
An, whose remarks were distributed by the state news wire Xinhua, said the staff on duty at a nearby train station failed to detect the problem, and added that there were shortcomings with training and management. An didn't clarify whether those equipment and personnel issues were specific to the area of the accident, the coastal province of Zhejiang, or systemic to the nation’s much-vaunted high-speed rail. Three officials from the Shanghai Railway Bureau, including the head of the bureau, were removed from their positions Sunday.
China is expected to extend its high-speed rail system to 10,000 miles by 2020, and planned spending has reached some $100 billion a year on the project.
Remarks by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao at the site Thursday also raised questions. In addition to calling for a stringent investigation into the causes of the accident, and severe punishment if corruption were involved, Wen said his visit had been delayed because he’d been sick for 11 days.
It's very unusual for senior Chinese officials to acknowledge illness _ the leadership goes to great lengths to present a solid front _ and even more so for someone such as the 69-year-old Wen, who at times has been photographed playing sports in public.
The extent of his illness was unclear. Xinhua had written on Sunday, the day after the train crash, that the premier met with a Japanese trade delegation in Beijing. A few days earlier, Xinhua reported that Wen had spent time with the president of Cameroon.
Criticism of the government’s handling of the crash began on Chinese Internet micro-blogs, which ignored a raft of government directives on what should and shouldn't be reported about the accident, and it gained steam after images were posted of excavators clawing apart train cars and burying pieces of them at the site of the wreck.
The discovery Sunday afternoon of a 2-year-old girl still alive in the wreckage, after the government said all survivors had been found, fanned outrage.
Chinese reporters shouted at rail spokesman Wang Yongping during a news conference Sunday evening after he referred to the still-living girl’s presence as a “miracle.”
On Wednesday, Xinhua quoted an outburst by a state television reporter who clearly wasn't happy.
"How did the driver of train D301 not know that the D3115 was stopped on the same railway?” Xinhua reported the TV reporter as saying. “Did the driver of D3115 report the stop to the dispatch center?”
The signal mechanism now blamed for the wreck was the product of the Beijing National Railway Research and Design Institute of Signal and Communication. The institute issued an apology Thursday.
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