China, Jul 24 – At least 35 people were killed in a collision between two high-speed trains in eastern China, state media said Sunday, as the government ordered an “urgent” overhaul of national rail safety.
Another 210 people were wounded in the accident late Saturday, the worst to hit the country’s rapidly expanding high-speed rail network since it first opened to passengers in 2007, the official Xinhua news agency said.
Two foreigners were among those killed when a train that lost power after being struck by lightning was hit by a second train, sending four carriages plunging from a viaduct and derailing another two, the report said.
The disaster in Shuangyu, on the outskirts of Wenzhou city, is likely to raise fresh questions over the rapid roll-out of China’s high-speed rail network, one of the world’s biggest.
Hours after the accident, the government launched an “urgent overhaul” of national rail safety, which had been the subject of widespread concern even before Saturday’s crash.
Hundreds of millions of Chinese depend on the country’s railways and any problems generate tremendous public interest in a country where, despite a three-decade economic boom, air travel remains beyond the means of most people.
Survivors of Saturday’s accident reported violent shaking and said many passengers were initially trapped in the wreckage, although reports said the more than 1,400 people on board had now all been evacuated.
“The train was supposed to stop for one minute, but actually stayed for 25 minutes,” a passenger surnamed Zhou told Xinhua. “After it moved, we heard a ‘bang’ and it felt like an earthquake.”
Another, unnamed survivor, aged 40, told the news agency he had been trapped in a carriage with more than 60 other passengers after the crash.
“We were trapped in the coach for more than one hour before five of us broke the window and crawled out,” he said. The five rescued another two passengers, but one died shortly afterwards, the man said.
It was not immediately clear how fast the second train was travelling when the collision occurred. Trains on that stretch of line are designed to go at a speed of 200 kilometres (125 miles) an hour.
The train was travelling from Hangzhou, capital of Zhejiang province, and Xinhua said trains to and from that city had now been suspended, citing unnamed sources.
The latest rail accident was the worst since April 2008, when 72 people were killed and more than 400 injured when one train derailed and another collided with it in the eastern province of Shandong.
That accident raised transport safety concerns for the Beijing Olympics just months later.
China has ploughed huge sums of money into its high-speed rail network, which covered 8,358 kilometres by the end of 2010 and is expected to exceed 13,000 kilometres by 2012 and 16,000 kilometres by 2020.
A new $33 billion high-speed track linking Beijing and Shanghai opened to passengers on June 30 — a year ahead of schedule and a day before celebrations to mark the 90th birthday of China’s Communist party.
The fast link can carry 80 million passengers a year — double the current capacity on the 1,318-kilometre route — and halves the rail journey time between the country’s two main cities.
But the huge investments have spurred allegations of corruption, which has raised concerns over costs and safety.
China’s state auditor has said construction companies and individuals last year siphoned off 187 million yuan ($29 million) from the Beijing-Shanghai project.
The revelation followed the sacking of former railways minister Liu Zhijun in February, who allegedly took more than 800 million yuan in kickbacks over several years on contracts linked to China’s high-speed network.
In April, the railway ministry said trains would run between 250 and 300 kilometres per hour on the new Beijing-Shanghai link, which is designed for a maximum speed of 380 kph, for safety reasons.
The Beijing-Shanghai line has suffered delays caused by power outages, sparking a slew of criticism and raising fresh concerns over safety of the landmark link.