Railways probe is 'unprecedented'

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 August, 2011, 12:00am


The investigation facing the Ministry of Railways is unprecedented, Chinese legal experts say - its representatives having been removed from the panel looking into the Wenzhou high-speed-train crash.

Premier Wen Jiabao held a State Council meeting on Wednesday announcing the removal of two senior railway ministry officials from the investigation panel, effectively making the Wenzhou crash in Zhejiang the first rail accident to be scrutinised without influence from the ministry.

At least 40 people died and nearly 200 were injured in the July 23 accident that occurred when a high-speed train ploughed into the back of another atop a viaduct.

Deputy rail minister Peng Kaizhou and Chen Lanhua, the ministry's safety director, were removed from the panel, while 11 people with mostly engineering or electronics backgrounds added, bringing the total panel members to 34, Xinhua said. Peng ranks first among the ministry's deputies and is in charge of general administrative affairs, including human resources. Chen overseas the railway's operational records and monitors implementation of safety measures.

Hu Xingdou, a professor of economics at the Beijing Institute of Technology, said the move was the result of public pressure.

Hu said the railways ministry led the investigation into every train accident in the past, and he noted that the ministry even had its own police department and court system to deal with rail-related issues.

Unilateral ministerial investigations prevented outside investigators from getting involved, leaving the public suspicious over panel findings and unsatisfied with the lack of transparency in the process, he said.

But the new panel is still not as independent as some would like, as most of the members are officials, retired officials or academics with close links with the government. 'Unless the panel moves out of the shadow of the government, it will not be fully independent or fair,' Hu said.

The ministry declined to comment on the panel changes yesterday. The authorities were apparently wary about negative public comments, as news portals such as Sina and Sohu disabled the ability to comment on news of the panel changes. But microblogs were abuzz about the new panel.

Lin Qing, a legal consultant with Angang Steel, wrote on his microblog that though the decision represented progress for China, it had come at too high a cost. 'Why do we always trade lives for progress? This is a Chinese characteristic,' he wrote.

The panel has conducted experiments in the past few days, using a real bullet train to simulate the effect of various problems such as lightning strikes and signalling equipment failures, China Central Television said yesterday. Though still unable to reach a final conclusion, the panel said it was quite certain the accident was caused by human error.