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Bullet Train Crash and Bus Fire in China Raise Questions about Transit Safety

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China bullet trainsA crash involving two trains and a fire aboard a long-distance bus in China caused a total of 80 deaths in a two-day period late last week, raising questions about that nation's safety culture.


The high-speed train crash occurred July 23 when a moving train rear-ended a stopped train in Wenzhou, in China's eastern Zhejiang Province. The stopped train had stalled after being struck by lightning, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency. The death toll now stands at 39, including two Americans, and 12 victims remain in critical condition.


A deadly bus fire one day earlier claimed 41 lives in central China's Henan Province. The bus was over capacity, and on July 25 Xinhua reported that the illegal carriage of inflammable chemicals had caused the fire. The news agency reported that six suspects had been detained and earlier suggested that "lax safety supervision might be to blame for the tragedy."


The Chinese government acted swiftly in the wake of the accidents, firing three top railway officials, according to the Financial Times, and ordering a safety overhaul of the nation's transportation system. At the same time, railway ministry spokesperson Wang Yongping expressed support for the country's rapidly expanding bullet-train network. "China's high-speed train is advanced and qualified," he was quoted by Xinhua as saying. "We have confidence in it."


But the veracity of information about the causes and consequences of the accidents is an open question. Many of the available details come through state-controlled news outlets, and The Wall Street Journal reported that "the Chinese government sent out directives to state media outlets telling journalists and editors how to cover the Wenzhou high-speed train crash."


The bullet-train accident is just the latest sign of trouble for China's railway system. Earlier this year the nation's minister of railways, Liu Zhijun, was dismissed and placed under investigation for "severe violation of discipline," a move that Xinhua attributed to China's anticorruption efforts. And a new segment of high-speed railway, connecting Beijing to Shanghai, has been criticized for delays and stoppages, at least some of which have also been attributed to power outages caused by electrical storms.


Photo of high-speed Chinese trains courtesy docsdl/Flickr

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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