Experts appointed to investigate the Wenzhou train disaster could compromise the findings in the eyes of the public, it was claimed yesterday.
At least half are closely linked to the Ministry of Railways or are from a company that provides key technological support to the rail line where the accident took place.
The July 23 bullet train crash that killed at least 40 people has dealt a body blow to the nation's high-speed-rail development.
The government has pledged to conduct a thorough investigation and punish those responsible.
The inquiry findings will be released next month, with many hoping they will bring about much-needed reform of the Ministry of Railways.
But analysts following the issue yesterday said they were disappointed with the make-up of the inquiry team - and particularly that of the expert panel. Of the eight members, at least four could be alleged to have a conflict of interest.
Professor He Weifang, who has called for a revamp of the inquiry team, warned: 'If public concern over [apparent] conflicts of interest are not properly addressed, the impartiality and credibility of the investigation will be seriously compromised.'
The special task force was set up by the State Council a day after the accident. But the list of the task force members was released only last Thursday after mounting calls from the public for an 'open and transparent investigation'.
Even Premier Wen Jiabao added his voice to the calls.
Led by Luo Lin, director of the State Administration of Work Safety, the probe team is made of 40 members. Most are from the government safety watchdog and the Ministry of Supervision, but they also include a deputy railways minister and two other senior Ministry of Railways officials.
It is the expert panel, though, that has caused most public concern. Among the experts are three professors from Beijing Jiaotong University known to be staunch advocates of high-speed rail.
Another, Li Heping , is from a research institute affiliated with the Ministry of Railways, according to media reports.
One of the three professors, Tang Tao - who leads a key laboratory on the control system commissioned by the ministry - is an independent director of Shenzhen-listed Henan Splendor Science and Technology, the designated supplier of rail signalling, disaster prevention and safety monitoring systems.
The company was heavily criticised after the accident.
Rail officials earlier blamed the fatal collision on design flaws in a signalling system. The system is used in at least 58 railway stations across the country and on subway lines in major cities, including Beijing. The company has strongly denied any links with the accident, saying it manufactured only the black box recorders for trains on the high-speed line between Ningbo and Wenzhou.
Another professor, Wang Mengshu, is one of the best-known supporters of the expansion of high-speed rail.
Wang was appointed deputy head of the expert panel, but many questioned his impartiality as he has often been quoted praising the safety of the high-speed-railway system.
The third professor, Ji Jialun , serves as secretary general of a transport committee under the China Railway Society - directly controlled by the Ministry of Railways. None of the experts was available for comment yesterday. But Professor Mao Shoulong , of Beijing's Renmin University, said experts opposed to bullet trains and specialising in law and public administration should also be involved.
He said: 'It may be true that the task force has to include rail officials and experts to facilitate the investigation.
'But as a consequence the truth, or at least part of it, will have to be sacrificed, let alone the growing hopes for a revamp of China's highly monopolised rail system.'
Xu Yifa , a former director of the Zhengzhou railway bureau, also said the credibility of the government, the rail ministry and the experts involved are at stake if the probe fails to present a convincing report.
Lew Mong-hung, a Hong Kong delegate to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, said the official explanation so far was unconvincing and called for an inquiry led by members of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress. 'Many of them [members of the probe team] are linked with the railway authorities so it will be friends probing friends,' said Lew.
'The NPC should launch an independent investigation.'
Additional reporting by Tanna Chong