x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Death toll in China's high-speed rail crash rises

As officials ordered an inquiry into what caused the country's worst rail tragedy in three year, the death toll from the high-speed train crash in south-east China on Saturday night rose yesterday to 35, while the total number injured reached 210 ¿ and one girl was pulled out alive after 21 hours.

Emergency workers battle yesterday to rescue survivors from the mangled wreckage of two Chinese trains involved in a high-speed collision between the cities of Hangzhou and Wenzhou. AFP
Emergency workers battle yesterday to rescue survivors from the mangled wreckage of two Chinese trains involved in a high-speed collision between the cities of Hangzhou and Wenzhou. AFP

BEIJING // Chinese authorities launched an "urgent overhaul" of rail safety yesterday after at least 43 people were killed when a high-speed train slammed into another train that had ground to a halt on a bridge after a lightning strike.

Three officials, including the head of the Shanghai Railway Bureau, were removed from their posts yesterday and put under investigation, state media announced.

Saturday's collision on a bridge near the city of Wenzhou, south of Shanghai, was the worst accident to hit China's rail network since 2008.

It comes at a sensitive time for China's high-speed rail services, which have recently been the target of allegations of corruption and lax safety standards, as well as questions about the fast pace of expansion.

Amid the carnage, there was one note of good news yesterday. Rescuers combing through the wreckage discovered a young girl alive but unconscious yesterday afternoon, about 21 hours after the accident took place at 8.38pm local time on Saturday. The child, initially reported to be a boy, was taken to a local hospital. There were no immediate reports on her condition.

The collision sent the first four carriages of the moving train, en route from Beijing to Fuzhou, hurtling off the bridge and into a 100-foot gorge. The last two carriages of the stalled train, which was travelling from Hangzhou to Fuzhou, were jolted from the tracks but remained on the span. Both were powered by overhead electrical lines.

An investigation into the causes of the accident has been ordered by Sheng Guangzu, China's railways minister, and state media yesterday indicated a wider enquiry into rail safety would take place. Reuters reported that the system warning of a stopped train on the tracks was not working, due to a power failure.

The number of injured passengers reached 211 yesterday, while dozens of other scheduled trains were cancelled as work continued to remove the wreckage.

Dramatic television pictures of the scene in Zhejiang province showed a carriage from one train jammed into the back of the other train, and another carriage hanging vertically from the bridge.

Cai Qi, a villager who told Reuters the crash sent "the head of the train flying into the air", rescued 10 people. "Some of them had their hands or legs broken. Some were crushed inside debris and we pushed and carried them out," said Mr Cai, 30.

According to reports, up to 1,000 people helped with the rescue, and about 1,500 passengers took shelter in a nearby middle school.

It was China's deadliest rail crash since an express train derailed and smashed into another train three years ago, leaving 72 people dead.

Since Chinese authorities inaugurated the flagship Beijing-to-Shanghai service a month ago, it has been plagued by breakdowns caused by power cuts.

Earlier this year the railways minister, Liu Zhijun, was removed from office amid allegations he had taken kickbacks totalling hundreds of millions of yuan.

After taking office, Mr Sheng ordered the maximum speed of many new high-speed lines to be reduced, partly as a result of safety concerns. The need to reduce operating costs so poorer migrant workers, many of whom have complained high-speed services are too expensive, was also a factor.

Some analysts have suggested the companies under the railway ministry have accumulated excessive amounts of debt as they press ahead with new projects. Investment this year in high-speed rail is scheduled to reach 745.5 billion yuan (Dh424.7 billion).

China has more than 8,000km of high-speed rail lines, a figure set to double within a decade.

dbardsley@thenational.ae