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What happened in Wenzhou?

The Saturday night train crash in eastern China that killed around 40 and injured around 200 (different reports give different figures) has provoked a firestorm reaction on the Chinese internet. A number of locals have accused the Chinese government of burying the trains to cover up evidence. The accusations were picked up and circulated on the Chinese microblogging site and rumor hub Sina Weibo, and even official state outlet Global Times has quoted family members of the accident victims questioning the official death toll.

Official reports have said that the crash was caused by a lightning strike. If so, it's at least the second time in the last three weeks that thunderstorms have caused malfunctions on high-speed rail trains. The first of these incidents occurred on July 10 on a train traveling the newly opened Beijing-Shanghai rail line, though a subsequent investigation from the Shanghai Oriental Post (translated here by the University of Hong Kong's China Media Project) cast doubt on this explanation.

Chinese state media outlet Xinhua says that the government has recovered the "black box" from the latest crash, so an updated report on the cause of the accident should be forthcoming. But a report from Chinese muckraking magazine Caixin argues that the accident would have been "entirely preventable" had the train's automated data collecting system been functioning properly.

The crash makes for an embarrassing footnote to a series of Chinese government pronouncements about the quality of its high-speed rail system. Shortly after the Beijing-Shanghai connection opened on June 30, Ministry of Railways spokesman Wang Yongping pronounced that the new line and Japan's vaunted bullet train network "can't even be raised in the same breath, because many of the technologies employed by China's high-speed rail are far superior." And a People's Daily profile of train engine driver Li Dongxiao from last December may be an even more frightening example of Chinese overconfidence, as David Bandurski at the China Media Project explains:

The piece valorizes a train engine driver, Li Dongxiao, who was called upon in 2008 to master the "world's most complex" train in just 10 days under a "dead order" from Chinese government leaders, before piloting his first train back to Beijing at 350 km/hr.

… the People's Daily piece emphasizes that Li and his colleagues -- none of whom had even college educations - had to rely on instruction manuals that had been translated from German by an outside contractor, rendering many of the terms "extremely strange." At one point, Li heroically bets his German trainer, who shakes his head and says it's impossible to master the train in under 2-3 months, that he can do [it] in 10 days.

Chinese official outlets are under strict orders as to stick to "love in the face of tragedy" as a theme (see the leaked government directives here at China Digital Times). But no such efforts can stop the power outages that continue to plague Chinese high-speed rail. The latest outage, from yesterday afternoon, delayed twenty trains on the Beijing-Shanghai rail, said government newspaper China Daily.

Meanwhile, partial train service at the location of the crash resumed yesterday morning. Let's hope that the resumption of service hasn't come too soon.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

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You think this weekend’s Chinese train crash was bad? It’s nothing compared to India’s deadly rails.

The fallout from this weekend's Chinese bullet train crash -- in which 39 people died when a train was immobilized after being struck by lightning on a bridge, then rammed by another train from behind, derailing several cars -- continued today. The government fired three senior railway officials and is reviewing safety on the country's four-year-old high-speed rail system. While there was justifiable anger at Chinese officials for trying to keep details of the accident out of the public, China's rail safety is far better than that of its fellow emerging economy -- India.

Journalist Lloyd Lofthouse, compared the numbers going back to 2007 for India, China, and the United States. He found that out of the 177 rail accidents during that period, 20 percent of them actually occurred in the United States, 15 percent occurred in India, and only 4 percent occurred in China. But the death toll in India was far greater.

In the period Lofthouse reviewed, 66 people were killed in U.S. train accidents, about 141 in Chinese accidents, and "hundreds" in Indian rail accidents.

Last year alone, there were at least 17 crashes in India. And, in the past month, three incidents killed more than 100 people. According to Bloomberg News:

In the early hours of July 7, 38 people were killed and at least as many injured when a train collided with a bus carrying members of a wedding party at an unmanned level crossing in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. Then, on July 10, at least 68 people were killed and more than 250 injured when 15 bogies of the Howrah-Kalka Mail careered off the tracks, again in Uttar Pradesh, while the train was travelling at more than  60 miles per hour. That evening, six coaches of the Guwahati-Puri Express derailed in Assam after a bomb was set off on the tracks, injuring more than 100 people.

India has one of the largest railway system in the world, carrying about 19 million passengers every day on about 7,000 trains. It's called the "lifeline to the nation." Unfortunately, that often means trains are jam packed.

 

 

 

 

 

Given the spate of recent crashes, anger has mounted against the government-run system. Newspapers have editorialized about the system's persistent safety failures and "systemic decay."

The Deccan Chronicle, an Indian paper, said the increasingly accident-prone system could be blamed on the addition of "more trains on nearly every route, mainly to suit the whims or political compulsions of railway ministers, and raising their speed without commensurate upgrading of tracks and other equipment needed to bear the extra load." The Times of India wrote that the railway authority "failed to meet targets it had set for itself in the corporate safety plan ... indicating the low priority it gave to passenger safety." According to the Indian Express, "There is a real danger that the frequency of train accidents in India might soon desensitize people as ‘yet another' instance of what has become thoughtlessly, mind-numbingly commonplace."

Part of the problem is politicians have tried to keep fares as low as possible to keep voters happy, which has turned the system into a "financial disaster," according to the Indian Express, meaning trains are old and not properly cared for -- a deadly combination.

AFP/ Getty Images