China's premier dashes to quell outrage at rail crash 'cover-up'

The high-speed rail network, a symbol of China's rise as a superpower, has been hit by corruption and shoddy building work
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China's premier, Wen Jiabao, has promised a thorough investigation into the causes of a high-speed rail crash to try to quell growing public anger at an apparent cover-up of major flaws in one of the country's showcase projects.

Mr Wen led the damage limitation exercise during a visit yesterday to the site where 39 people were killed on Saturday when one bullet train smashed into another that had stalled.

Mr Wen – whose appearances at the sites of national tragedy to comfort the afflicted have earned him the nickname "Grandpa Wen" – said he had been delayed because of illness.

But his appearance followed widespread criticisms of the government's handling of the crisis and came as a Chinese research institute accepted responsibility for problems with signalling equipment that contributed to the crash, near Wenzhou city in Zhejiang province.

The admission, and Mr Wen's visit to see the injured in hospital, underlined the difficulties that the government faces in trying to win back public confidence after a series of corruption scandals that has bedevilled the project.

"No matter if it was a mechanical fault, a management problem, or a manufacturing problem, we must get to the bottom of this," said Mr Wen during a rare media conference under the viaduct where four carriages plunged 100 feet during Saturday's crash. "If corruption was found to be behind this, we must handle it according to law and will not be soft. Only in this way can we be fair to those who have died."

He acknowledged public suspicion about the way the accident was handled following accusations that the media was stifled to protect the project. China's high-speed rail system has become an emblem of the country's rise as a global superpower and a source of pride alongside its space programme and the success of the Beijing Olympics.

Shortly after he left the crash site, relatives of crash victims arrived to lay flowers. "We want to ask the government what is the cause of the accident," Jin Xingyan, whose brother and niece died in the crash, told The Associated Press. More than 100 relatives of those killed protested outside a railway station at Wenzhou on Wednesday because nobody was accepting responsibility. After the crash, domestic media blamed foreign technology. But the Chinese designers of the signalling equipment yesterday issued an apology to victims' families and the injured and promised to co-operate with the investigation. The Beijing institute said it would "have the courage to assume responsibility and accept the punishment deserved".

By 2013, China aims to have the world's most comprehensive high-speed railway network, with 800 bullet trains, but the project has been damaged by claims of corruption and substandard building work that has led to delays.