China's media and public voiced anger Monday over a deadly train crash that caused a slump in railway stocks and cast doubt on the breakneck expansion of the country's high-speed network.
Thousands of Chinese turned to social media websites to express their anger over the handling of the disaster, with some saying they suspected the true scale of it was being covered up.
Authorities moved Sunday to allay concerns by sacking three senior railway officials and launching what the government called an "urgent review" of national rail safety.
But experts said the accident, which killed at least 36 people -- including two Americans and an Italian -- and was China's worst ever high-speed rail disaster, would fuel existing public unease.
"I think this has confirmed... a lot of the concerns over cost-cutting and corner-cutting that has been going on in the last few years," said Alistair Thornton, a senior analyst at research firm IHS Global Insight.
"This could have large ramifications that go up the political line."
Hundreds of millions of Chinese depend on the country's railways and any problems generate tremendous public interest in a country where, despite a three-decade economic boom, air travel remains beyond the means of most people.
At the train station in Wenzhou, the eastern city the trains were traveling to when the accident occurred late Saturday, many passengers remained unconvinced by government reassurances.
"I'm worried. Yesterday when I was booking my ticket I wondered whether to take a bus instead," Yu Dabao, a 47-year-old clothing industry worker, told AFP.
"You need to expand to develop, (but) it needs to be done in an orderly way, and I don't think it is. Before, there were no high-speed trains. It's too quick. This is not something that should happen."
A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Beijing told AFP two Americans had been killed in the crash and consular officials had been in touch with their relatives.
An Italian woman aged about 22 was also killed, embassy officials said.
The parents of a two-year-old girl miraculously found alive after 21 hours in the wreckage both died, state media reported.
The accident also hit investor confidence. Shanghai-listed shares of China South Locomotive and Rolling Stock (CSR), which said it made the trains involved in the crash in partnership with two foreign companies, dived 8.9%.
"The railway ministry is investigating the reason of the accident and we will closely monitor the development," a CSR spokeswoman, who declined to be named or provide further comment, told AFP.
China's high-speed rail network only opened to passengers in 2007, but has grown at breakneck speed thanks to huge state funding and is already the largest in the world, with 8,358 kilometers of track at the end of last year.
But some experts say the speed of growth has exposed the system to problems, and in recent weeks delays and power outages have plagued a flagship new high-speed link between Beijing and Shanghai.
In the latest incident a power failure on the line in the eastern province of Anhui brought more than 20 trains to a three-hour standstill on Monday, a spokesman for the Shanghai Bureau of Railway told Xinhua.
The People's Daily, the influential Communist Party mouthpiece, carried a column Monday that indicated safety may have been compromised by the rush to build a world-leading system.
"The accident may have been avoided if sufficient attention was given to (recent problems)," said the writer, named Zhang Tie.
Popular microblogging sites buzzed with criticism of authorities, with some calling for the resignation of railways minister Sheng Guangzu and others urging travelers to steer clear of China's high-speed trains.
"The engineers who made the high-speed rail lines never travel on high-speed trains because they know there are security risks," wrote one.
Others accused authorities of "burying" evidence that could have helped determine the cause of the collision.
Emergency workers at the crash site were seen using heavy machinery to bury the wreckage, and Chinese authorities have been quoted as saying they did so to protect the country's technological secrets.
Concerns about official corruption also resurfaced, after China's state auditor said earlier this year that construction companies and individuals siphoned off 187 million yuan from the Beijing-Shanghai project in 2010.
In February, Beijing sacked the then railways minister Liu Zhijun for allegedly taking more than 800 million yuan ($124 million) in kickbacks linked to contracts for high-speed rail expansion.
"Maybe the silver lining of this will be it drives home that you cannot cut corners on safety," said Thornton.© 2011 Agence France-Presse