Abullet train smashed into another bullet train in eastern China on Saturday night, killing at least 39 passengers and injuring some 200 others. Because a high-speed train network is a symbol of China’s rapid economic development, the accident must have dealt a shock to China’s leadership, which has vigorously pushed the project.

The accident occurred on a bridge in Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province. The Railway Ministry says lightning hit and stopped the first train, heading from Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, for Fuzhou, Fujian Province; another bullet train, en route from Beijing for Fuzhou, rammed it from behind. Five cars of the second train fell from the bridge and another car hung from it.

Chinese authorities should carry out a thorough investigation to pinpoint the cause of the accident, but they buried the first car and resumed train operations at the scene only 1½ days after the accident, deepening doubts about their sincerity in the investigation. Under criticism, they later dug up the buried coach.

China started building a network of train lines for high-speed trains in the latter half of the 1990s, and the first high-speed trains were introduced in 2007. The length of all lines now totals about 10,000 km. The 1,318-km Beijing-Shanghai high-speed rail link, inaugurated at the end of June, is the latest addition.

The network has been hit by safety incidents and corruption scandals. The network is designed to link economic zones separated by vast distances. Saturday’s accident suggests that China has built the bullet train network too hastily without paying enough attention to operational safety.

Bullet train technology in China is not a coherent system. The first train involved in the accident was based on Canadian technology, the second train on Japanese technology, and the train operation control system on European technology.

Saturday night’s accident raises questions about whether China is in control of the safety technology for its bullet trains.

It is very likely that the automatic train stoppage system malfunctioned. In Japan’s Shinkansen bullet train system, if the ATS system goes out of order, the trains themselves are designed to stop automatically.

China is trying to export high-speed train technology, calling it genuine Chinese technology. Saturday’s accident will certainly tarnish China’s credibility.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.