China starts bullet train safety inspections

By ELAINE KURTENBACH | August 23, 2011 | 5:45 AM EDT

SHANGHAI (AP) — China has begun inspections of all its showcase bullet train lines following a crash last month that killed 40 people, as authorities try to work out who is ultimately responsible for the disaster.

The State Administration of Work Safety will present a report on the July 23 crash to China's top leaders in September, the agency's spokesman Huang Yi said in comments Tuesday on its website.

"Of course, a period of analysis is required to determine both the direct and indirect factors behind the crash and to work out who is responsible," Huang said.

The crash has brought into the open simmering complaints over the costs and possible safety risks of the ramp up in China's high-speed rail system, which had been one of the country's top priority technology projects.

The monthlong inspections of 49 projects and 6,000 kilometers (3,700 miles) of bullet train lines and projects will run through the middle of September, and train operations and construction will be suspended if safety problems are found, officials say.

In the crash last month near the city of Wenzhou in eastern China's Zhejiang province, a lightning strike caused one bullet train to stall and a sensor failure that allowed a second train to keep moving on the same track and slam into it.

The accident also prompted the railways authorities to order safety checks of all the country's train lines.

Huang said it was clear that there were deficiencies in the signaling systems and safety management of the trains.

"This was an accident that was both avoidable and preventable," he said.

The troubles have put intense pressure both on the Railways Ministry, which operates the lines, and on the manufacturers who are supplying their equipment.

As inspections began, the 55-year-old chairman of China National Railway Signal & Communication (Group) Corp., Ma Cheng, collapsed and died of a heart attack, the company said in an announcement on its website.

Huang said the government would use the crash as a lesson, though he asserted that China's overall work safety situation — a longtime headache given the dismal record in many industries such as mining — has shown clear improvements.

"There have been no 'especially severe' mining accidents in the past 10 months," he said.

The bullet train collision killed 40 people and injured 177, including a toddler orphaned by the crash who was rescued nearly a day later.

The official Xinhua News Agency reported Tuesday that the 2-year-old girl, Xiang Weiyi, has been moved to Shanghai to help her recover from severe injuries to one of her legs, after relatives appealed for better help for the girl.

The girl will need a "pretty long time to recover," it quoted pediatric orthopedist Dr. Zhao Li as saying.

China has 13 high-speed railways in operation, with 26 under construction and 23 more planned, although approvals of new projects were frozen following the Wenzhou crash. Delays on a new Beijing-Shanghai line blamed on equipment and power failures have fanned public anger over the cost and potential risks of the program.

The government has ordered reduced speeds and cut ticket prices for the lines.

Earlier plans called for expanding the network to 10,000 miles (16,000 kilometers) of track by 2020.