/ 29 April 2008

China blames high speed for train disaster

Chinese authorities on Tuesday blamed excessive speed for the nation’s worst train crash in more than a decade, amid fears the death toll would climb past 70.

After the line to the seaside town of Qingdao — the venue of the Olympics sailing competition — was quickly reopened, the official Xinhua news agency cited an investigation panel as saying ”high speed” caused the accident.

The passenger train from Beijing that derailed and slammed into an oncoming train was travelling at 131km/h, in excess of that section’s 80km/h limit, it said, citing the panel headed by the central government’s work safety administration.

A local official at the scene of Monday’s pre-dawn crash near Zibo city in eastern China’s Shandong province also sought to blame the driver of the train from Beijing, believed to have been carrying more than 1 000 people.

”It’s human error. The train was going way too fast,” Zibo city spokesperson Li Chenggang said.

The train driver is believed to have survived but Li indicated his actions would be under extremely close scrutiny. ”No one knows what is going to happen with the driver of the train,” he said.

The latest official death toll from the accident released on Monday night was 70, with 416 injured, making it the worst train accident in China since 1997.

However, dozens of the injured were reported to be in critical condition, and an Agence France-Presse journalist at the crash site witnessed what appeared to be another dead body being carried away in a bag on Tuesday morning.

Even as emergency work continued, Chinese officials rushed to get services running again as quickly as possible ahead of the May 1 national holiday, as Qingdao is a popular destination.

Xinhua reported that the affected area of the Beijing-Qingdao rail line had reopened early on Tuesday morning, less than 24 hours after the accident, and with some wreckage from the accident still lying there.

Another reason for the haste appeared to be China’s determination to show the accident had caused no major disruption ahead of the Beijing Olympics in August, especially with Qingdao serving as a venue.

”The country has responded very quickly to this. The government has wanted to make sure all the injured are taken care of well and to get the line running as quickly as possible,” Zibo spokesperson Li said.

”The Olympics are coming.”

Frenchman Pascal Boisson, who was travelling with his son, daughter and a friend to Qingdao, was injured in the accident and said from a Shandong hospital bed there had been no obvious indications of what was to come.

”I still can’t believe what happened, it was dark and the train just turned upside down,” said Boisson (54) grimacing with pain from broken ribs.

”I don’t remember much of what happened. After the train turned over, all I remember was that we were there in the dark, waiting.”

Boisson said he had been separated from his son, Pierre, who was taken to a different hospital.

”I want them to bring Pierre here right now, we should all be in the same hospital. He is only 14 years old and he doesn’t speak any Chinese,” he said.

The accident was the second railway tragedy in Shandong this year.

In January, a high-speed train ploughed into a group of railway workers in the province, killing 18 people. — AFP