WENZHOU, China (Reuters) - A Chinese railway research institute took responsibility on Thursday for a flaw in signalling equipment that led to a deadly accident and stoked widespread public anger and suspicion of the government’s high-speed rail plans.
Premier Wen Jiabao visited the crash site near Wenzhou city in Zhejiang province and vowed a thorough and transparent investigation. He said an illness had prevented him visiting the scene earlier.
A high-speed train rammed into a stalled train late on Saturday killing 39 people. Soon after the crash, domestic media had blamed foreign technology.
China’s ruling Communist Party leaders rarely give news conferences, and Wen’s visit to the relatively prosperous commercial corner of China showed how worried the government is about public ire over official handling of the accident, which has sparked an uproar on the Internet and at least one protest.
Railway authorities said a signal, that should have turned red after lightning hit the train that stalled, remained green, and rail staff then failed to see something was amiss, the state-run Xinhua news agency said.
The Beijing National Railway Research & Design Institute of Signals and Communications Co. Ltd., in a rare admission of responsibility for a disaster, issued an apology, acknowledging it was the source of the deadly flaw.
The Institute would “face up to shouldering responsibility, and accept any punishment that is due, and will strictly undertake pursuing culpability of those responsible”, Xinhua reported, citing an institute statement.
“Safety overrides all else, and high-speed rail safety is of even more overriding importance,” said the Institute.
The admission of guilt came in the face of public ire about the accident that has escalated into angry accusations that officials had covered up facts and stifled media coverage to protect an ambitious rail expansion plan and the Communist Party’s image of unruffled control.
Wen, who is aged 68 and will retire from late next year, said he could not visit the accident site earlier because he was sick in bed.
He did not specify the nature of the illness that kept him hospitalised for 11 days, though state media had reported on several meetings he had had with foreign dignitaries during that period, including with Cameroonian President Paul Biya.
“The doctor only today reluctantly allowed me to check out of hospital,” said Wen, who looked a little worn but not seriously ill, making a rare public disclosure about the health of China’s senior leaders.
He acknowledged the suspicion among the public about the crash and said authorities had to take such questions seriously.
“After the accident occurred, society and the public had many suspicions about the cause of the accident and the way it was handled,” Wen said, standing in front of the bridge where the crash happened.
“I believe that we should earnestly listen to the public’s views, treat them seriously and provide the public with a responsible explanation.”
Some Wenzhou citizens brushed off Wen’s remarks as meaningless, underscoring the challenge Beijing faces to win back the public’s confidence.
“Premier Wen may have made a lot of promises on having a thorough investigation to find the culprits, but it feels like it is just the usual rhetoric,” complained Chen Nian.
Xinhua reported that the final results of the probe into the crash would be released by mid-September.
Earlier in the day, the government sought to address public anger by blaming the crash on faulty signals technology and train officials’ failure to anticipate problems after lightning struck one of the trains.
“Whether there are problems with machinery and equipment, or administrative problems, or problems from the manufacturing, we will investigate them to the very bottom,” said Wen.
“If the investigation turns up hidden corruption, we will also deal with this according to the law and there will not be any soft-pedalling.”
Many members of the public suspected officials had covered up facts and restricted media coverage of the accident to protect an ambitious rail expansion plan and the Communist Party’s image of unruffled control.
After Chinese medical officials and local governments were blamed for covering up the spread of the deadly SARS epidemic in 2002 and 2003.
Wen and President Hu Jintao vowed more open and accountable government after Chinese medical officials and local governments were blamed for covering up the spread of a deadly SARS epidemic in 2002 and 2003.
But those vows rub up against the government’s own strict censorship and wariness of exposing failings and missteps to uncontrolled public opinion.
The train crash, in which nearly 200 people were injured, was China’s worst rail accident since 2008.
On Wednesday, more than 100 relatives of passengers who were killed protested outside a railway station, angered by the lack of accountability over the incident, state media reported.
The Global Times, a tabloid owned by Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily, said the protesters demanded direct talks with officials from the Railways Ministry.
“They claimed that the bullet trains were built with advanced technology. How could lightning paralyze them so easily?” the newspaper quoted Wang Hui, whose husband died in the accident, as saying.
The newspaper showed photographs on its website of dozens of people with some holding a banner that said: “Disclose the true reason behind the July 23 train crash and respect the dignity of victims.”
Efforts by the propaganda department to bar Chinese media from questioning official accounts of the accident fuelled the anger and suspicion, especially about the death toll and rescue efforts.
The Railway Ministry is still investigating the cause of the accident, and has ordered a two-month safety review of railway operations.
Additional reporting by Sui-Lee Wee, Jim Bai, Chris Buckley, Sally Huang, Ben Blanchard and Sabrina Mao in Beijing; Editing by Sugita Katyal