BEIJING (Reuters) - Two passenger trains collided in eastern China on Monday, killing at least 70 people and injuring hundreds as carriages jumped the tracks and toppled into a ditch, state media said.
At least 420 people were taken to hospital, with 70 in critical condition, Xinhua news agency said, suggesting the death toll could rise further.
Xinhua said authorities had determined the crash -- the worst in China since 1997 -- was caused by human error, and that one of the trains might have been traveling much faster than the speed limit.
“Although investigations are continuing, some investigators said that T195 was traveling at 131 kilometers per hour before the accident, far in excess of the speed limit of 80 km/h,” it added.
One train was en route from Beijing to the seaside resort of Qingdao when the accident occurred in Zibo, Shandong province. The second train was from the resort of Yantai, in Shandong.
One passenger described escaping the wreckage with her 13-year-old daughter through a massive crack in the floor.
“We were still sleeping when the accident occurred,” Xinhua quoted the woman, surnamed Yu, as saying. “I suddenly woke up when I felt the train stopped with a jolt. In a minute or two it started off again, but soon toppled.”
The accident, which happened at a bend, caused the carriages to topple into a ditch, Xinhua reported, adding that bloodstained sheets and broken Thermos flasks littered the ground.
The director and Communist Party chief of the Jinan Railway Bureau, which oversees the line linking Qingdao and the provincial capital Jinan, had been sacked and would be investigated by the Ministry of Railways, Xinhua said.
Four of the injured were French nationals, three from the same family and one of their friends, all of whom were taken to hospital with bone fractures, the report said, adding no foreigners were among the dead.
Workers finished repairing the damaged line on Monday evening, and services were expected to be restored by Tuesday morning, Xinhua said.
A coach of China’s sailing team who was en route to Qingdao, host of the sailing events for the Beijing Olympics, was seriously hurt and facing amputation of his legs, state television reported. It did not give his name, and an official reached at the Chinese Yachting Association had no information.
Pictures posted at the news portal www.sina.com showed carriages overturned and rescue workers milling around passengers wrapped in blankets.
The local Qilu Evening News said the railway had begun a new timetable on Monday. Xinhua said rescuers had been working to remove the wrecked coaches from the tracks to ensure traffic along the line could resume on Tuesday morning.
State television said the rail line was built in 1897 and was due to be retired for all but goods trains in favor of a high-speed link to be ready in time to carry passengers from Beijing to Qingdao for the Olympic sailing events.
Railway Minister Liu Zhijun had arrived at the site and President Hu Jintao had dispatched Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang to the scene, Xinhua said.
“The city government of Zibo has sent a 1,500-member strong team to help and console the victims’ families,” it said, adding Railways spokesman Wang Yongping had expressed deep condolences for the victims.
In January, a high-speed train ran through a group of maintenance workers in the dark in Shandong, killing 18.
China has invested about $100 billion in its railways in the past few years and is expanding the system to accommodate what is the world’s most dense passenger and freight network.
As it stands, China’s railways can barely keep pace with the country’s breakneck economic growth or with the hundreds of millions of workers who are flocking from the countryside to booming cities.
Monday’s accident was the worst in China since 1997, when more than 100 people were killed in a train crash in the central province of Hunan.
Additional reporting by Beijing newsroom; Writing by Lindsay Beck; Editing by David Fogarty