39 people died and over 200 were injured — including 2-year-old Xiang Weiyi, who lost both of her parents — when two bullet trains crashed on Saturday in China’s eastern Zhejiang province. The crash happened during a thunderstorm when lightning knocked out power to one train, which was then rammed by one behind it; six rail cars were derailed, four of then plunging 20 to 30 metres from a viaduct.Public fury has grown not only about the crash, but about a possible cover-up as reports emerged about the disposal of the wreckage and about journalists being ordered to focus not on the details of the accident, but on “extremely moving” stories, such as about blood donations, with the overall theme about “great love in the face of great disaster.”
Safety concern have seemed to be given a backseat in the the Chinese government’s race to build the world’s largest high-speed network. In just a few years, 10,500 miles of railways have been completed or under construction. But Liu Zhijun, a former railway minister and one of the project’s biggest champions, was sacked in February for “serious disciplinary violations” – the latter being a phrase usually indicating corruption allegations. The Guardian Professor Zhao Jian, a prominent critic of high-speed rail at Beijing Jiaotong University, as saying that “Overly rapid development has caused safety issues. This is the result of the irrational behaviour of the former leadership of the ministry of railways.”
On Tuesday, Chinese rail minister Sheng Guangzu apologized for the crash and announced a two-month safety review of the country’s railways and trains. The Chinese government has begun compensating the families of those in the crash, with the family of a victim, Lin Yan, receiving $77,500.00 says the BBC.
Already on Monday, trains on the high-speed link between Beijing and Shanghai were delayed three hours on Monday due to a power outage caused by storms. But such outages seem to be something of the norm, as these and other malfunctions have occurred since the new line opened in June; the top speed of the trains has been lowered, from 350km/h (217mph) to 300km/h (186mph) for safety reasons.
Many have called the Chinese government on its attempts to control news about the crash, says the Guardian:
Internet users attacked the government’s response to the disaster after authorities muzzled media coverage and urged reporters to focus on rescue efforts. “We have the right to know the truth!” wrote one microblogger called kangfu xiaodingdang. “That’s our basic right!
Leaked propaganda directives ordered journalists not to investigate the causes and footage emerged of bulldozers shovelling dirt over carriages.
Wang [Yongping], the railways spokesman, said no one could or would bury the story. He said a colleague told him the wreckage was needed to fill in a muddy ditch to make rescue efforts easier.
But Hong Kong University’s China Media Project said propaganda authorities have ordered media not to send reporters to the scene, not to report too frequently and not to link the story to high-speed rail development. “There must be no seeking after the causes [of the accident], rather, statements from authoritative departments must be followed,” said one directive. Another ordered: “No calling into doubt, no development [of further issues], no speculation, and no dissemination [of such things] on personal microblogs!”
My parents were just in China on a trip last month and took a number of bullet trains; my husband and I, as regular riders of not terribly efficient New Jersey Transit trains, admitted a bit of awe at the thought of being whisked quickly from here to there shiny bullet trains. But safety always comes first: One of the bullet trains my parents took was in Zhejiang province, exactly where the accident on Saturday happened. I’d rather crawl along on the sticky-seated train cars here than risk a crash in a train traveling 200 km/h (120 mph) or higher. A frequently forwarded comment on the Twitter-like Sina Weibo service put it simply:
“When a country is so corrupt that one lightning strike can cause a train crash … none of us is exempt. China today is a train rushing through a lightning storm … we are all passengers.
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