China's beleaguered railways ministry has ordered a probe into the death of a passenger on one of its regular express trains, after a carriage full of witnesses said they saw a train steward beat him unconscious.
Several passengers aboard the K256 express train from Shenzhen West to Hefei in the eastern province of Anhui told local television they had witnessed the beating of a passenger by three train attendants on Monday, one of whom was wearing a chief steward's uniform.
The incident took place in Coach 15 of the long-distance train late on Sunday, local media reports said.
It comes as China struggles to rebuild public trust in its vast rail system after a high-speed train crash near the city of Wenzhou, south of Shanghai, in July, when at least 40 people died.
Calls to the Nanchang railways bureau police office and the Nanchang railways bureau main office went unanswered during office hours on Tuesday.
However, a passenger surnamed Lai told Jiangxi Television that the incident had been witnessed by the entire carriage, sparking widespread anger among passengers.
"Everyone was writing it down and taking photos with their phones," Lai said. "Everyone on the train was very angry that one of the railway staff would beat up a passenger."
"The entire carriage witnessed it," she said, adding that the incident took place near Ganzhou city in the eastern province of Jiangxi.
Lai said she was sitting right next to the victim when he intervened in a fight between a passenger and three members of the train crew.
"He was trying to break it up," Lai told the station. "Then a guy came rushing through from Coach 14, and he grabbed the guy [sitting next to me] by the neck and beat him from one end of the carriage to the other."
"Then he grabbed his neck and hit him on the temples."
'Awful to watch'
A second eyewitness told Jiangxi TV: "Three people were beating up one guy. One of them was wearing the uniform of train captain [chief steward]," he said.
"There was another in a blue uniform and another who was selling water on the train."
A third passenger surnamed Qiu said she also saw the fight. "It was awful to watch ... he had him by the neck ... and he just kept hitting him and wouldn't let go."
"I was sitting next to him ... He was slumped there on the seat, motionless."
An employee who answered the phone at the local emergency rescue station said they had received a call to attend the incident.
"We went to rescue one person but he had already died," the employee said. "The person was already dead when our doctor arrived at the scene."
An official who answered the phone at the Guangming Sanitation Service Corp., a contractor for the Nanchang railways bureau, said the dead man was an employee of a different contractor.
"He was a worker for Guangming Project Industrial Trading Co.," he said.
"I don't know the details. You'll have to ask his company," he said.
An official who answered the phone at the Nanchang railways bureau press office said they were busy writing a statement for release.
Soon after, the ministry of railways said it had ordered an investigation into the incident.
"Three off-duty railway workers fought with on-duty train staff over a seat dispute that resulted in one worker's death," the official Xinhua news agency reported.
The ministry "ordered the two bureaus to launch a detailed investigation into the death and severely punish those responsible in accordance with the law," the agency said.
The incident sparked angry comments on popular microblogging services on Tuesday.
One netizen commented: "Even people who try to break up fights get beaten to death! And it was on a train called 'Harmony.'"
"What an evil society!" said another.
"Harmony," which was also the name of one of the high-speed trains involved in the July crash, is sometimes used to refer to the activities of China's online censors.
Content which is deleted is commonly said to have been "harmonized."
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.