China Orders Safety Checks After Bullet Train Crash

The deadly collision involving two bullet trains in China last weekend is only one of many problems in the country's high-speed rail network. It's also plagued by corruption, undermining safety standards. A proud technological achievement has become an embarrassment.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Let's follow up now on a train crash in China. Two bullet trains collided over the weekend, killing 39 people, we're told, injuring almost 200. And the crash has unleashed a storm of criticism against the government.

NPR's Louisa Lim joins us now from Beijing.

Hi, Louisa.

LOUISA LIM: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: So what's the latest on this crash and the follow up to it?

LIM: Well, the latest is that the government's ordered a two-month long safety check on the entire train system. And it really needs to do that in order to assuage the concern, because there's been an absolute outcry about this crash. I mean, what happened was that on Saturday night, two trains collided, and four carriages fell about 60 feet off a viaduct.

At first, the government blamed a lightning strike, which it said had knocked out power to one train. But still, a lot of people are asking questions about why the automatic computer warning systems didn't seem to have worked. And the government really needs to show that the train system is safe.

INSKEEP: Well, I want to understand that, because - not to minimize this accident, but this is a very large country that has an awful lot of safety problems and large accidents. Why has this one touched off such criticism?

LIM: Well, I think in particular this has been a huge blow to national pride, because this railway network was supposed to be the world's most advanced railway network. And yet ever since it opened there've been all kinds of power failures and debt problems and corruption problems.

And then this accident happened, and it really highlighted what many people feel has gone wrong with China's political culture: the rampant corruption, the love of these kind of prestige projects. And the feeling is the opening of the rail line was pushed forward perhaps before safety checks had taken place.

INSKEEP: Has the frustration grown so much that people are beginning to question this narrative that many people in the world seem to accept, that China is on its way to world dominance?

LIM: Well, at the moment, people are still focused on what actually happened, and they're asking a lot of questions about the government's narrative for this particular accident, because there has been a huge perception that there's been a cover up.

I mean, just about 36 hours after the accident, officials started destroying and burying the train carriages that had fallen from the viaduct. And at first, they said this was necessary to safeguard Chinese technology. And then there was another argument that the wreckage needed to be removed and buried for the rescue effort to go ahead.

But people are just absolutely outraged by this. on China's Twitter platform, people are saying it was not just the train that was buried that day, but the truth, too.

INSKEEP: Hmm. Well, how publicly can people criticize the government there on an issue like this?

LIM: Well, in this case, the Internet has played a huge, huge role in the debate. I mean, the government's really tried to muzzle the state-run press to tell its own story, but that's really been eroded by the effect of the Internet. And, you know, they're posting angry videos of press conferences with reporters even shouting at government officials. So the Internet has been very, very effective in this case at questioning the government's version of what really happened.

INSKEEP: Well, let me ask about one consequence of this. The Chinese were hoping to export their high-speed train technology overseas. What happens to that market when there's a well-publicized crash like this?

LIM: Well, this will deal a huge blow, maybe even a fatal blow, to China's attempts to export its train technology. Even in the U.S., a Chinese company had been hoping to bid for the line connecting San Francisco and L.A. Now, analysts say the accident will make that politically unpalatable.

And in Thailand and Hong Kong, there had been plans for Chinese companies to build rail lines. And there are already questions being asked in the media there about whether these plans should, in fact, go ahead. So, for the government, there are economic consequences, as well as political ones.

INSKEEP: Louisa, thanks very much.

LIM: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Louisa Lim, from Beijing. You hear her on NPR News.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: