BEIJING, July 25, 2011 -- Three top railroad officials have been fired following the deadly collision involving two of China's high speed trains whose accelerated construction had raised fears that safety had been sacrificed in the rush to complete rail projects.
Those fears seemed to be borne out this weekend when a a lightning strike caused electrical malfunctions leading to the collision of two high speed trains killing 38 people and injuring 190. This is the worst accident for the country's high speed trains which began service in 2007.
The country's transportation authority has called for an overhaul of transportation safety and dismissed three top officials: the head of the Shanghai railway bureau, his deputy, and the bureau's Communist Party chief. The railway ministry said that all three will also be subject to further investigation.
China railway expansion is a huge project which was meant to be a crown jewel of the country's development and is already the country's priciest infrastructure project in history. The country aims to have 10,000 miles of high speed rail by 2020.
Earlier this month China inaugurated its bullet train service between Beijing and Shanghai, and did it in two and a half years instead of the planned five years so that it would be ready in time for the Chinese Communist Party's 90th birthday. That fete of construction, some worried, came at the expense of safety measures.
Despite Saturday's accident, railway ministry spokesman Wang Yongping insisted, "China's high-speed rail technology is up to date and up to standard, and we still have faith in it."
High Speed Train Collision Questions Safety of China's Rails
Some passengers weren't so sure. At Beijing's South Station today, some passengers expressed worries about safety.
"After hearing about the train crash occurring because of a lightning strike, I wanted to change my ticket to avoid today's storms," a woman identifying herself has Ms. Wang said. "But my husband and I decided we couldn't let one incident change our plans for taking the train."
Another woman who only gave her surname, Lu, was also afraid of thunder storms and power outages, and wanted to take a flight instead, but couldn't change her ticket because she was travelling with a tourist group.
"I'd prefer a different mode of transportation because the [Beijing-Shanghai] line isn't in normal operation. There were more than three times that electrical problems happened on the line [since it started]. That isn't normal," she said.
That is a change from last week when ABC News talked to passengers boarding the new bullet train.
"I don't worry about safety or delay," said one passenger waiting for the train last week, unfazed by repeated equipment malfunctions that stopped trains in its first few weeks of service. "It's unlikely there will be more problems. And look at how many people have chosen to take the train."
Another passenger was less confident. "I don't worry about safety, but I do worry about being delayed," she said at the time.
In addition to electrical problems, speed has been a point of contention surrounding the trains, with some saying the government exaggerated the speed of their prized high-speed line.
Originally planned to run at 235 mph, the target goal was lowered to 217 mph, and trains are operating now at two speeds: 185 and 125 mph.
Fast Construction Raises Safety Fears on China's High Speed Rails
Even before the accident this week, the high speed rail project had become a thorny issue for Chinese government officials. China has spent over $60 billion on numerous high-speed lines, an investment which has not been without political corruption.
In February of this year, China's railway minister Liu Zhijun was sacked on corruption charges, being accused of taking $500,000 in kickbacks, which Chinese media reported is a small fraction of what analysts believe he really took.
A chief rail engineer identified as Zhang Shuguang was fired shortly after for corruption and was accused by some of having billions of dollars in overseas bank accounts.
David Bandurski, a media analyst from Hong Kong University, told ABC News that especially after the dismissal of Liu Zhijun, "The rail project has become such a political hot potato that is has almost become political suicide for a government official to come out and talk about the high speed rail."
Bandurski said that the Chinese media has had almost unprecedented freedom to report on corruption and the frustrations over the high speed rail project.
Other infrastructure projects in China have been plagued with similar problems of hurried construction.
China's state broadcaster reported that days after the opening of the world's longest sea bridge off China's east coast, workers were still tightening bolts on the bridge that could easily have been loosened by hand, as 18,000 cars crossed the bridge daily.
Nanjing South Station, the most expensive station built along the Beijing-Shanghai rail line, has had problems since its completion. Repairs to a leaky roof and floor tiles that have already had to be torn up and replaced were defended by the technical director of the project as "fine tuning," Shanghai Oriental Satellite TV reported.