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Jul 25, 2011

China caught burying crashed train cars and the truth

China has experienced a massive failure of central censorship at the hands of social media over the weekend with widespread posting of videos of damaged carriages being buried in ha

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

Plane Talking is about message management in the media almost as much as it is about air transport and also covers rail transport issues as high speed surface transport technology grows as a competitive alternative to airline services.

This image of the wreckage being buried was abruptly removed from the Sino Weibo site

China has experienced a massive failure of central censorship at the hands of social media over the weekend with widespread posting of videos of damaged carriages being buried in hastily dug trenches at the foot of the elevated high speed rail lines at Wenzhou where one express slammed into the back of another on Saturday.

The videos still available on at least one China news site at 7 am Monday Australian time and archived on YouTube raise the possibility that the bodies of some of the victims remain inside the carriages, which were flattened and broken up by earthmoving equipment during hasty attempts to erase all visible traces of the disaster.

There are said to be references to this in the Chinese language interviews seen in the videos found on YouTube and on the various sites that are on top of the coverage including China Geeks and Storyful.

The accident happened on Saturday when one train came to a standstill after a lightning strike, and another ran into it, killing 35 people and injuring more than 200 according to official reports.

However the news reports and images recorded on social media suggest a much higher death toll. The China Geeks report aggregates some survivors stories and includes the text of a warning China authorities sent to the media prohibiting media attendance and also analysis of the accident.

It is also cautious about whether or not the bodies of uncounted victims were interred with the wrecked carriages, which were pushed off the elevated tracks where heavy equipment then broke them up and buried them in large trenches.

In one of the videos on China Geeks and also repeated in various edits on other sites the sequence of events appears to show one of more bodies on the side of a pit into which one of the carriages has already been positioned, followed by at least one victim being carried away by a group of men.

Consecutive extracts from a China media newscast, showing the general scene and at the foot of the viaduct at a pit being filled with the wreckge, victim retrieval
Consecutive extracts from a China media newscast, showing the general scene, and at the foot of the viaduct at a pit being filled with the wreckge, victim retrieval

On the Storyful.com post, two strands in the comments being posted in English and Chinese are highlighted, one saying that the two trains were never in communication with each other because they were under the control of different departments, and the other expressing disgust at the official claim that only 35 people had been killed.

For those who looked to China as being at the leading edge of high speed rail transport (including the writer) the reality of this accident, and claims of administrative incompetence and heavy handed attempts to bury the evidence and perhaps some of the victims is very unsettling.

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19 comments

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19 thoughts on “China caught burying crashed train cars and the truth

  1. freecountry

    Well … all we know at this stage is that the crash occurred and the wreckage is being buried. Based on the above information, the rest seems to be no more than internet rumour at this stage.

    Culturally, it would be normal for Chinese citizens to expect the government to clean up the mess as soon as possible. They don’t like death and bad luck being rubbed in their faces, so to leave it there would be perceived as unresponsiveness or disorganisation. Then again, although the cause of the crash doesn’t seem to be a mystery, I would have thought the manufacturer of the cars would be interested in analyzing the wreckage for safety engineering.

  2. Quizzical

    Returning to the aviation roots of this blog, I am not a happy train traveller and this reinforces my concerns.

    When your travel is limited to a track so that any obstruction can prove the adage ‘a sudden stop kills’ I feel more vulnerable than in the open sky with commonality of communication in ATC sectors.

    I accept in the regional areas there may be no-radio aircraft and no-transponder aircraft but I still think statistics favour travel away from a rigid route.

    Summed up for me in that old ATSB cross-modal safety comparison:
    a. High capacity regular public transport (RPT) travel (airline travel) is the safest form
    of transport while general aviation is significantly less safe than car travel;
    b. Bus and rail are the safest forms of land transport having very similar safety rates;
    c. Motorcycling is the least safe form of transport.

    And the rail travel the ATSB refers to is not “high speed’ rail.

    Although, before anyone pings me on this – I admit the aviation figure is biased by us not having had a large hull loss in a long time.

  3. Ben Sandilands

    I think examination of the linked and archived videos takes this beyond rumor.

    As posted, we have images of a carriage that has already been pushed into the edge of the pit and the recovery of one or more bodies from it. There may be more than one set of remains under the plastic covers on the upper edge of the pit, and it is from that area that we see a party hoist something onto a stretcher and carry it away. Eyewitnesses are also interviewed at the end of some of the clips saying they believed there were bodies in the wreckage being buried.

    In parallel there are the reports that the two consecutive trains on that high speed line were not in communication with each other, but with different railway departments.

    As an unashamed rail fan I think some serious investigative reporting inside China is needed, and given the exceptional coverage the accident has generated, I’m reasonably optimistic that the circumstances will not be hushed up. I agree very much that we need to assess the information we have very carefully, but we do have videos, and we do have eyewitnesses and we do have survivors who have been seen and heard world wide.

  4. johnb78

    It’s worth noting that this was *not* a high-speed rail line – it was a rail line with a speed of 160km/h and conventional signalling. Which might just about count as high-speed compared to CountryLink, but certainly isn’t under any global definition.

    Quizzical: while I understand your instinctive view as someone who’s primarily a flyer (just as explaining using stats and physics why aviation is safe isn’t going to do anything to help people with an instinctive fear of flying), simply put, a sudden stop on the railway should *never* kill anyone, because we’ve spent 150 years learning how to avoid that happening.

    Under the Australian signalling system, trains are signalled so that a train is only given a ‘clear’ signal if there is no possibility of it hitting the train in front (even if the train in front were immediately to put on maximum braking and come to a halt). Even if – as is possible in the China case – an electrical storm takes out the signalling system altogether, this is treated as all signals being at ‘danger’.

    The system used on real high-speed railways in the West – moving-block in-cab signalling – is a little different, but is again based on the key principles that every train is always far enough from the train in front that the driver will have time to stop if required, and that if the signalling system fails, then the driver will stop.

    (also, you’re right on the hull loss point. This obviously distorts things – a single narrowbody jet crash with all souls lost would kill more people than have been killed in train accidents in Australia over the last 100 years).

  5. johnb78

    In case it wasn’t clear from my comment above, I agree with Ben that there is something, or some combination of things, that is seriously wrong with rail safety either in China in general or on this particular line. This can’t be extrapolated to places which aren’t China.

  6. interesting

    The concern must be extended to the oversight that will occur for aircraft based in a country where saving face is more important than preserving evidence for a detailed examination of the contributing factors and any lessons that may be learned for future improvement of safety and survivability.

  7. Quizzical

    I
    – and for aircraft maintenance when QF decide to get it done there cheaper 🙂

    JB
    I hear what you say but cast my mind back to Waterfall – one driver on a train versus 2 pilots in RPT etc.

    My concern remains being locked onto the same track. And signals can fail in strange ways – a road memory from not long ago of a traffic signal failure caused by a snail track in the control box that caused a fatal head-on between two vehicles on a “one-way only at a time” bridge.

    I think you and Ben are spot on about the need to research this rather than bury the heads in the sand figuratively and literally!

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  9. johnb78

    Not sure it’s fair to equate Singapore with China.

    Quizzical: Waterfall compares more closely to something like BE548, though – the fact that the train’s locked to a track makes a ‘driver heart attack’ incident less dangerous, rather than more dangerous, than when it occurs on a plane. And road signalling is by design *much* less robust and failsafe than rail signalling, because most road driving is regulated by eye rather than by signalling.

    Agreed that China needs to research the disaster fully, and that railways in Australia would do well to check the results of the investigation and ensure that none of the factors causing this incident apply here.

  10. mook schanker

    If they’re going around chopping the trains after an accident without proper safety due diligence will make Chinese companies such as CSR suspicious in the eyes of Asian countries wanting to procure similar rolling stock/systems.

    As for planes being safer, well depends on the metric, kms travelled or number of trips? If you flew as many trips as car trips what would the answer be?

    johnb78, signalling systems actually vary across Australia, some freight lines even do dynamic block signalling. I don’t share the view about infallible western signalling. Ask the MTM driver who smashed his passenger train in the back of a freight wagon because he was yacking on his mobile (and through a red signal). You can also pass a red signal in Victoria legally under certain conditions. Red signals are just signals to a driver, hardly failsafe. Even train stop trips are not infallible, a driver can easily reset the train and keep moving under red…

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  13. nonscenic

    As mook mentioned, train signals are not failsafe. Besides design faults (in Victoria a few years ago one type of signal was found to not failsafe to danger) there is a significant risk in abnormal situations. In many rail signaling systems there are procedures on what to do if a signal fails (eg due to power failure). This often involves the driver proceeding at reduced speed or being given instructions from a central control.
    Read the ATSB’s rail investigation reports to see what can happen when human error has a chance to operate. Railway safeworking has evolved over learning from past mistakes. Engineering solutions have developed to control the risks of human errors, but new and complex circumstances have lined up to produce failures.
    What is the tragedy is that China appears not to be investigating the engineering aspects so that it can learn to avoid future recurrences.

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  16. LongTimeObserver

    This result in the Chinese development of HSR may create understandable doubt about the development of large transport aircraft.

  17. indigo

    [As an unashamed rail fan I think some serious investigative reporting inside China is needed, and given the exceptional coverage the accident has generated, I’m reasonably optimistic that the circumstances will not be hushed up.]

    Ben, which China are you talking about?

    http://chinadigitaltimes.net/2011/07/directives-from-the-ministry-of-truth-wenzhou-high-speed-train-crash/

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