WHILE it is likely be some time before the investigation into the fatal high-speed crash at Wenzhou is completed, the head of Shanghai Railway Bureau, Mr An Lusheng, announced on July 28 that the accident was due to signalling design flaws. He explained that the signal protecting the first train, which had come to a halt following a lightning strike, failed to turn from green to red allowing the following train to crash into the rear of the stationary train.

The signalling system, which has been in service since September 28 2009, was designed by Beijing National Railway Research & Design Institute of Signals and Communications. The institute, which issued an apology and acknowledged that it was the source of the design flaw, said it will "face up to shouldering responsibility, and accept any punishment that is due, and will strictly undertake pursuing culpability of those responsible. Safety overrides all else, and high-speed rail safety is of even more overriding importance."
Both trains involved in the accident were fitted with automatic train protection (ATP) equipment supplied by another Chinese company, Hollysys Automation Technologies. "According to analysis of data from multiple sources, the ATP on the two trains provided by Hollysys functioned normally and well, and free of any malfunctions prior to the crash," Hollysys said in a statement, although the company acknowledges it must await the outcome of the investigation for the definitive cause of the accident.

The Chinese government is taking the accident very seriously in response to the huge public outcry at the loss of life, unprecedented media coverage, and accusations that local officials tried to cover up the wreckage. Premier Wen Jiabao was reported to have left his hospital sick bed on July 28 to visit the crash site near Wenzhou, where he held a press conference, a rare event for a senior member of the government.

"High-speed railway development should integrate speed, quality, efficiency and safety, and safety should be put in first place," Wen said at the scene. "Without safety, high-speed trains will lose their credibility." Wen admitted that China's high-speed trains will only obtain global trust when they are "truly safe," adding that the accident "has reminded us to attach more importance to the safety of our high-speed railways."

Wen also acknowledged that the strong public reaction in China to the accident needs to be addressed: "I believe that we should earnestly listen to the public's views, treat them seriously and provide the public with a responsible explanation."

China's railway minister, Mr Sheng Guangzu, echoed the premier's sentiments: "We feel deep guilt and sorrow about the tragic loss of life and property in the accident, which exposed weaknesses in rail safety, the emergency management of major accidents, and a lack of experience - the lessons are profound."

On August 10, Wen announced a three-point plan to improve railway safety. The objective was to bolster the investigation into the cause of the accident not only to identify the direct cause but also the source of the problem, while at the same time learning lessons from it. As a result, the Wenzhou accident investigation team was strengthened.

The first of the new safety initiatives involves stepping up safety checks on new lines in operation and currently under construction to "thoroughly prevent and resolutely curb" major accidents. The checks, which were due to run from mid-August to mid-September, will ensure that staff are adequately trained and that new lines meet the correct construction standards.

The State Administration of Safety Work (SASW) is leading the safety checks, which are being carried out by 12 teams of government officials and 175 technical experts but excluding staff from the Ministry of Railways. The SASW will report back to China's State Council, with train operation or line construction brought to an immediate halt if any potential safety hazards are spotted.

Secondly, the maximum speed and the number of trains operated will be increased gradually when new lines open to accumulate operating safety experience and to guarantee safe operation of all systems. In future, a standard set of procedures for opening new lines will be established.

Finally, the approval of new railway construction projects is being suspended while the safety assessment process is reorganised and technical standards and construction programmes determined. Nevertheless the State Council stresses: "China will unswervingly continue to develop high-speed rail."

On August 11, Sheng announced that train operating speeds would be reduced to 50km/h below the design speed of lines. As a result, fares will be reduced to compensate passengers for longer journey times.

The maximum speed of trains running on the Beijing - Shanghai line had already been reduced prior to the Wenzhou accident from 350 to 300km/h on July 1. Two more 350km/h lines, Beijing - Tianjin and Shanghai - Hangzhou, have now had their maximum operating speed cut to 300km/h. Eight lines where trains had been running at 250km/h will now be restricted to 200km/h, and trains than had been allowed to run at 200km/h on conventional lines will now run at a maximum speed of 160km/h.

This restriction on conventional lines reverses the most recent national speed-up of train services in China, which has occurred six times since 1997.

The reduction in train speeds is being implemented in two steps to allow time for new timetables to be drawn up. The first took place on August 16 and the second was due to follow on August 28.