Chinese premier vows full inquiry to quell public fury over rail crash

CHINESE prime minister Wen Jiabao has belatedly vowed a thorough and transparent probe into last week's train crash that killed at least 39 people, visiting the crash site in a bid to calm public outrage at his handling of the disaster.

Mr Wen's trip yesterday to Wenzhou, in a relatively prosperous commercial corner of eastern China, and rare news conference, was yet another sign that the Communist Party is worried about losing its credibility after China's worst rail accident since 2008.

The accident occurred when a high-speed "bullet" train rammed into another stalled express train late on Saturday. The official response brought angry claims that the government was covering up the facts and stifling media coverage to protect plans for rail expansion.

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Efforts by the propaganda department to gag the media fuelled suspicion over the death toll and rescue response.

A rail research institute yesterday accepted blame for faulty signalling equipment as the cause of the accident, a rare admission for a state body. The government promised a full review of safety procedures and three rail officials were sacked.

At a hastily arranged press call, Mr Wen acknowledged the government should have provided the public with a swift explanation for the accident.

At the accident scene, he said: "Society and the public had many suspicions about the cause of the accident and the way it was handled.

"I believe we should earnestly listen to the public's views, treat them seriously and provide a responsible explanation."

Mr Wen, who is aged 68 and due to retire late next year, said he could not visit the accident site in eastern Zhejiang province earlier because he had been sick - another unusual admission - and in hospital for 11 days.

State television later showed Mr Wen visiting crash victims in hospital, looking visibly moved as he held a child's hand.

He then met family members, bowing and offering his sympathies. But the charm offensive appeared to ring hollow with some Wenzhou citizens, who brushed off Wen's remarks as meaningless. "Premier Wen may have made a lot of promises on having a thorough investigation to find the culprits, but it feels like it is just the usual rhetoric," complained Chen Nian.

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Soon after the crash, local media blamed foreign technology. But on Thursday, rail authorities said a signal, that should have turned red after lightning hit the train that stalled, remained green, and rail staff then failed to see something was amiss.

The Beijing National Railway Research & Design Institute of Signals and Communications Company issued an apology and said it would "accept any punishment that is due."