China’s high speed rail crash – What really happened?

Written by Mark Andrews for

On 1st July 2011, the flagship project of China’s high speed rail programme, the Beijing to Shanghai route, began operations. Premier Wen Jiabao opened the line to much fanfare.

The opening date also coincided with the official 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

A string of power outages plagued the first few weeks of the line’s operation and regularly left passengers stranded for hours whilst officials blamed thunderstorms – July being well into China’s monsoon season.

On 23rd July, disaster struck on one of the older first generation high speed rail lines, designed for maximum speeds of 250-280 km p/h.

At 20:34 the D301 service from Beijing South to Fuzhou, ran into the back of the D3115 service from Hangzhou to Fuzhou South in the Lucheng District of Wenzhou, a prosperous city in Zhejiang Province, southern China.

The D3115 service with 1,072 passengers on board, was operated by a sixteen carriage CRH1B set no. 046.

The D301 was a sleeper service with 558 people on board, operated by a CRH2E set no. 139, also of sixteen carriages.

The first three carriages of D301 careered off the elevated tracks and carriage 4 was left dangling near vertical to the ground.

The first three carriages of D301 careered off the elevated tracks. Photo: Rail Media.

The rear two carriages of D3115 derailed with carriage 16 sustaining heavy damage.

Official figures put casualties at 40 dead and around 210 needing hospital treatment for injuries.

Initial reports claimed that D3115 stalled after a lightening strike. The Railway Ministry then mysteriously changed the crash time to 20:27.

The first news of the incident possibly came at 20:38 from a passenger’s tweet on Weibo, a Chinese Twitter clone.

“Our train stopped for more than 20 minutes” stated another passenger, Ms Sun, on D3115.

“After the train started off again I felt a heavy pounding and then the power went off.”

What then began was a catalogue of ‘mishandling’ of the rescue and clear up operations.

The Railway Ministry ‘largely gave up’ on looking for survivors and recovering bodies by 02:00 and wanted to concentrate on clearing the tracks to resume services.

Local police chief Shao Yerong insisted that the carriages were not moved.

This ultimately led to the rescue of two more survivors including two year old Xiang Weiyi at 17:20 on the 24th July, almost 21 hours after the crash happened.

The Railway Ministry used earth excavators to roll the toppled carriages of the D301.

They then buried the lead carriage on site claiming they needed to get it out of the way to bring in equipment.

Japanese Shinkansen expert Satoru Sone commented:

“Once rescue efforts are over, it’s still important not to move the carriages as much as possible… Disassembling the trains and burying them, that’s just unbelievable.”

Other experts were also critical. Liu Tiemin, Head of the China Academy of Safety Science & Technology, lambasted the rescue operation.

“Any search and rescue should have a shrewd plan. When to stop, why to stop, decisions like that should be made very carefully.”

Regarding the handling of wreckage, Liu continued;

“Evidence is crucial in any investigation. After an accident, we need to understand how one train hit the other, which parts collided, and how strong the force was. The only way to answer all these questions is to study the evidence.”

Train services at the site resumed on the 25th July but the crash furore was far from over.

The day after the crash, Party ‘mouthpieces’ such as the Renmin Daily and Guangmin Daily, featured a promotion ceremony of the Central Military Commission on their front pages, leaving it to the city dailies to cover the crash.

On the 26th July, the Central Propaganda Department issued reporting directives banning investigations into the accident’s causes or any comment or reflection on the incident.

In a turning point for Chinese media, they refused to be reeled in.

Even normally pliant state broadcaster CCTV entered the fray. Bai Yansong, on his popular show News 1+1, stated that having ‘advanced technology’ did not equate to being ‘up to standard’ if there is a lack of support and thinking behind such systems.

As yet there is still no official news of D3115’s driver.

The rear two carriages of D3115 derailed. Photo: Rail Media.

He was allegedly last sighted by a passenger in carriage 12 speaking to his boss by phone and then crying on the floor.

However, a mysterious Weibo tweet on the 26th July claimed to have been from someone who had spoken to him and stated that he was being held and allowed no contact with the outside world.

Official news agency Xinhua blamed the crash on a signalling failure caused by a design fault; a lightening strike stopped a signal changing from green to red.

It seems, however, the true cause lies with the control centres and that both trains had been considerably delayed.

D301 should actually have been in front of D3115. The accident occurred on a stretch of track between Yongjia and Wenzhou South stations at about 20:34.

Had both trains been operating normally, D301 would have arrived at Wenzhou South at 19:42 and D3115 at 19:57.

Instead, D3115 was, around that time, sitting at Yongjia station.

Whilst there, D301 drew up alongside the CRH1 train and stopped.

D301 was unscheduled to stop at Yongjia and should have cleared the station more than ten minutes before D3115 arrived.

At around 20:15, D3115 set off at a speed of around 20km/h. Then at 20:24 D301 departed at 100km/h onto the same stretch of track.

Signalling technology used on the line is CTCS-2 (Chinese Train Control System) which is equivalent to European Train Control System Level 1.

Despite this, and supposed live monitoring by the control centre, no one stopped train D301 until the driver applied the emergency brake.


  1. You can say what you like about the RSSB, Network Rail and trains in this country. At least we don’t bury the eveidence of what went wrong and carry on

  2. You can say what you like about the RSSB, Network Rail and trains in this country. At least we don’t bury the eveidence of what went wrong and carry on

  3. Recently, the Chinese intimated they wanted to get involved in building Britains’ HS2. By all accounts, as well as possible adverse weather conditions, this accident seems to have been caused by total ineptitude – i.e. rushing passenger carrying trains into service before full testing had been complete.  The UK government must therefore be extremely wary of any such offers from the Chinese government. 

  4. Burying a train at the site of the accident with fourty fatalities,without virtually any accident investigation, beggars belief. “Come on” China face up to your responsibilities and reconise you got it wrong! invetsigate this properly to prevent it happening again.


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