The grieving relatives of those who died in last week's Wenzhou bullet-train crash have rejected initial findings from an official probe into the crash and called for more information, as Premier Wen Jiabao warned of "no mercy" for corrupt officials.
Railway officials have blamed the July 23 disaster, in which a high-speed train plowed into the back of a stationary train near the eastern city of Wenzhou, on design flaws in signaling equipment.
Six carriages derailed in the crash, and four of them fell off a 15-meter-high viaduct. The stalled train had lost power due to a lightning strike, officials said.
The Beijing National Railway Research & Design Institute of Signal and Communication has issued a public apology for the design problems.
In a statement on its website Thursday, the institute said it would "face up to shouldering responsibility, and accept any punishment that is due, and will pursue those who were culpable."
Relatives of those who died reacted angrily to the findings, however.
"Shouldn't they have some kind of lightning protection equipment?" said one woman surnamed Wang who lost a relative in the crash.
"I don't believe that an electric storm could cause the system to malfunction, such a high-tech design," she said. "This wasn't an accident; it was the result of human actions."
"They are lying to us," Wang said.
A second bereaved relative surnamed Huang said even if the signaling system had failed, this should have been reported by the train crew.
"There are so many trains on the track at once that it's a bit of a joke if a lightning strike can cause a system malfunction," Huang said.
"Even if the signals weren't working, the staff or driver should have reported it immediately," he said. "How could this lead to a crash?"
"There must be other factors at work here."
Wen visited the crash site on Thursday, laying flowers under the flyover and bowing in respect to those who died, before holding a rare on-the-spot news conference.
"If corruption is behind this we must handle it according to law and will not be soft," Wen warned. "Only in this way can we be fair to those who have died."
Wen said he had ordered an "open and transparent" probe into the accident, the results of which will be made public in September.
"The construction of high-speed railways should integrate speed, quality, efficiency, and safety," he said. "And safety should be the major priority."
But a bereaved relative surnamed Lu called on the government to release detailed information now, including details of passenger seating on the stationary train, and full details on the identities of those who died.
"They should have the courage to release more figures, and give a more open and transparent account to the relatives and the general public," Lu said.
"I don't really believe their figures about the number of people who died," he said. "If they were to make it public then people could confirm it for themselves."
Otherwise, Lu said, any investigation published later would fail to gain public trust and confidence.
"We won't believe in any results that are released later unless they do this," he said. "Cover-ups make people suspicious."
Wen promised that the crash probe would be overseen by China's cabinet, the State Council, and would reach a conclusion that "can endure the test of history."
But even China's tightly controlled official media has hit out at the government on its safety record.
The Communist Party mouthpiece, the People's Daily, called in an editorial on Thursday for an end to China's "blood-smeared GDP," while China Central Television news program host, Qiu Qiming, gave voice to widespread public anger over a slew of safety scandals.
"Can you give us a glass of milk that's safe?" Qiu asked. "Can you provide us a building that won't fall?"
"Can you try not to bury the carriages first when a major accident happens? Can you give everyone a basic sense of security? China, please slow down," he said.
Grieving relatives laid flowers on Friday at the site of the crash, which occurred at 11:00 p.m. on Saturday as the D301 bullet train with 558 passengers on board slammed into the 16-coach D3115, which had come to a halt with 1,072 people on board following a lightning-induced power failure.
The death toll was revised to 40 on Friday, as the families of victims gathered in light rain under the viaduct to burn incense and paper offerings for those who had died.
The authorities have doubled their offer of compensation for each victim from 500,000 yuan (U.S. $78,000) to 915,000 yuan (U.S. $142,000) in recent days following widespread protests from the victims' families.
Lili Yang of the U.S.-based Laogai Research Foundation said China's high-speed rail expansion has taken place at breakneck speed in recent years.
"Only a few years ago, China was a country that imported all the components for its high-speed railways," Yang said. "China is a country where there is a monopoly on power, and so much of its development depends on political factors."
"There are problems with China's high-speed rail development, seen from the point of view both of its regulation and its speed," Yang added.
U.S.-based scholar and former Macau University professor Cheng Tijie said he had been concerned over problems with the software systems used on the high-speed rail network when he rode the bullet train from Guangzhou on the second day of its operation.
"The equipment was all very flashy, no expense spared," Cheng recalled of his trip at the end of 2010. "But ... there were queues to purchase tickets ... [because] the ticket clerks said the system had totally crashed, and the automated ticket machines weren't working."
Cheng said there were major problems with the high-speed rail projects right from the start.
"One is that the tender process wasn't at all transparent," he said. "The people in charge of the project are scattered over every level of government."
He said the railways administration iss similar to a sovereign state. "They hired the drivers from within their own system and also the repair workers. They were all internal hires," he said.
"So obviously they are going to be even more corrupt than other major projects," Cheng said.
Reported by Fung Yat-yiu for RFA's Cantonese service and by Xi Wang for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.