The death toll in the mainland's first bullet train collision rose to 35 yesterday, with a further 192 injured, as the central government sacked three senior railway officials and ordered an 'urgent overhaul' of national rail safety to assuage public anger.
The worst accident to hit the country's high-speed network since its 2007 launch also raised doubts over the safety of the rapidly growing rail network.
Authorities suspended 58 trains yesterday and halted high-speed connections between Shanghai and Wenzhou in Zhejiang province for five days after the D-class bullet train rammed into a stationary train on the same line on Saturday night, derailing six carriages and sending four tumbling off a bridge.
Among 35 people killed in Saturday's accident were two foreigners, whose nationalities had not yet been established. Xinhua later said that eight more bodies were found yesterday in damaged train cars, although it was unclear if some of those eight were included in the toll of 35.
The disaster claimed its first political casualties yesterday, with state media reporting that three top officials at Shanghai Railway Bureau - the operator of one of the two trains involved in the crash - had been stripped of their posts on the spot. Xinhua reported that Long Jing, director of the Shanghai bureau, Li Jia, the bureau's Communist Party committee secretary, and Long's deputy He Shengli had all been fired. The dismissals came with the cause of the crash still unclear and official attempts to blame the weather were met with scepticism.
The accident occurred when the southbound D301, travelling between Beijing and Fuzhou, Fujian province, collided with the rear of the D3115 Hangzhou-to-Fuzhou train on the outskirts of Wenzhou at 8.24pm on Saturday. Together, the trains were carrying 1,630 passengers. Rail ministry spokesman Wang Yongping said an initial investigation blamed 'equipment failure caused by lightning strike'. However, in a chaotic press conference, Wang, facing heated questions from emotional journalists, avoided giving direct answers.
Much of the wreckage had been cleared from the site by yesterday afternoon. Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang was at the scene to help out in the relief work and investigation, Xinhua added. President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao also called for all-out efforts to rescue passengers. Hours after the accident, the central government launched an 'urgent overhaul' of rail safety, which has been the subject of concern before the collision.
Zhou Yimin, a retired deputy chief engineer and head of the railway ministry's science and technology department, warned in June of exaggerating the technical capabilities of Chinese-built trains. The collision comes in a month in which the newly introduced Beijing-Shanghai high-speed link has been dogged by extensive stoppages, one of which was similarly blamed on lightning strikes.
Witnesses at the scene confirmed there had been a heavy lightning storm shortly ahead of the crash, and it had cut the electricity supply to the cluster of houses directly beneath the rail bridge. 'It was really scary,' said Yi Wei, a local resident. 'The lightning came straight down directly on to the rail bridge. I looked up a moment later and saw a train was stopped there with all its lights off. A few moments later there was a great noise followed by a bang and I saw another train go up in the air and carriages coming tumbling down from the bridge. I have never seen anything like it.'