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China orders railway safety checks


The wreckage of train carriages in Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province, east China (AP)

The wreckage of train carriages in Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province, east China (AP)

The wreckage of train carriages in Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province, east China (AP)

The Chinese government has ordered a two-month, nationwide safety campaign on its railway system after a collision between two bullet trains killed at least 39 people.

The Railways Ministry said in a statement on its website that all local railway bureaux were to draw lessons from Saturday's accident in the eastern city of Wenzhou and immediately launch safety inspections.

One train rammed into the back of another which had stalled after being hit by lightning, causing six carriages to derail and four to plunge about 65ft-100ft (20m-30m) from a viaduct. More than 190 people were injured.

The ministry said local railway bureaux in various cities around the country such as north-western Urumqi, south-western Kunming, Harbin in the north-east and elsewhere have already begun safety checks.

The accident was the latest blow to China's bullet train ambitions. Designed to show off the country's rising wealth and technological prowess, the high-speed rail project has national prestige on par with China's space programme. But rapid expansion of the services has been dogged by concerns about safety, corruption scandals and criticism that tickets are too expensive for ordinary people.

The safety campaign announcement comes amid rising public anger and suspicion over the cause of the crash and the government's handling of the aftermath.

The sacking of three top officials at the Shanghai Railway Bureau did little to quell criticism, especially on the internet, that the government is more concerned with resuming operations on the affected line than with the loss of life.

Under particular scrutiny has been the authorities' handling of the wreckage from the crash. Chinese reporters and bloggers have questioned the apparently quick decision to clean up the crash site. Images of excavators pushing the wreckage into pits circulated widely on the internet, triggering speculation that the burial was an attempt to cover up evidence.

The usually staid China Central Television network raised questions that challenged the government to be more transparent. "Why does the train carriage have to be buried? Before identifying the cause of the accident, we should not rule out that the train itself is problematic," CCTV commentator Ma Guangyuan said in a programme broadcast on Monday.

Beijing plans to expand the high-speed rail network - already the world's biggest - to link far-flung regions and is also trying to sell its trains to Latin America and the Middle East. Critics say tickets are costly and the services do not really meet the needs of average travellers in many areas.