- Associated Press - Monday, July 25, 2011

BEIJING — Doubts about China’s breakneck plans to expand high-speed rail across the country have been underscored by a bullet-train wreck that killed at least 38 people.

One train rammed into the rear of another that had stalled after being hit by lightning Saturday in China’s deadliest rail accident since 2008. Six carriages derailed, and four fell about 65 to 100 feet from a viaduct. More than 190 people were injured.

Railways Minister Sheng Guangzu has apologized to the victims of the crash and their families. The U.S. Embassy in Beijing said two U.S. citizens were among the dead.

The Railways Ministry and government officials haven’t explained why the second train apparently was not warned there was a stalled train in its path.

One expert said he thought human error may have been involved.

“I think the problem may have come from the mistakes of dispatching management instead of technological failure,” said Qi Qixin, a professor at the Transportation Research Institute of Beijing University of Technology. “The system should have an ability to automatically issue a warning or even stop a train under such circumstances.”

The accident is the latest blow to China’s bullet-train ambitions. The prestige attached to the high-speed rail project, designed to show off the country’s rising wealth and technological prowess, is on a par with that of China’s space program.

Beijing plans to expand the high-speed rail network — already the world’s biggest — to link far-flung regions, and it also is trying to sell its trains to Latin America and the Middle East.

However, critics say ticket costs are too high and the services do not really meet the needs of average travelers in many areas.

Last month, China launched to great fanfare the Beijing-to-Shanghai high-speed line, whose trains can travel at a top speed of 186 mph. The speed was cut from the originally planned 217 mph after questions were raised about safety.

In less than four weeks of operation, power outages and other malfunctions have plagued the showcase 820-mile line. The Railways Ministry previously apologized for the problems and said summer thunderstorms and winds were the cause in some cases.

Official plans call for China’s bullet-train network to expand to 8,000 miles of track this year and 10,000 miles by 2020.

China’s trains are based on Japanese, French and German technology, but the manufacturers are trying to sell to Latin America and the Middle East. That has prompted complaints that Beijing is violating the spirit of licenses with foreign providers by reselling technology that was meant to be used only in China.

Three top officials at the Shanghai Railway Bureau were sacked after Saturday’s accident, and state-controlled media have raised questions, especially as rail travel moves hundreds of millions of people a year.

In an editorial titled “Train crash lesson for railway progress,” the Global Times said the accident should be “a bloody lesson for the entire railway industry in China.”

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