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CHINA'S deadliest high-speed train crash may hasten the break-up of a ministry that runs the world's second-largest rail network, employs more people than the US government and has debts larger than Denmark's economy.
Premier Wen Jiabao has pledged more focus on safety and greater accountability following the July 23 crash that killed 40 people, endangering the Ministry of Railways' dual grip on regulating and operating China's trains.
Dividing these roles may improve management, financial transparency and safety, said Hu Xingdou, an economics professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology. "The Rail Ministry has been run like an independent kingdom for years," he said.
"The concentration of power has caused inefficiency and mismanagement, and it's a hotbed for corruption."
Sheng Guangzu, who became Rail Minister in February after his predecessor was removed during a bribery investigation, faces public anger over the accident, ministry ties to suppliers and the burial of a train carriage before rescue work was completed. He is also wrestling with waning demand for ministry bonds and debts of 2.1 trillion yuan ($303.8 billion), about 5 per cent of gross domestic product.
Separating the ministry's regulatory and operating roles would bring the railways into line with other parts of China's state-run economy, including aviation, telecommunications and energy.
In those sectors, government-backed companies, which are often listed, run the day-to-day businesses while separate state agencies regulate them.
"The ministry's dual role as referee and market player should be ended," said Mao Shoulong, a public policy and politics professor at Beijing-based Renmin University of China. "The crash may provide a catalyst for the reform."
The department, which employs 2.1 million people and has its own court system, accumulated and retained its powers partly because of a traditional national-defence role, Professor Hu said. The Communist Party has relied on railways to speed troop movements since coming to power.
Yuan Gangming, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the ministry's interests were "closely tied up with its suppliers and subsidiaries, so it's natural for the public to believe (it) is responsible for the crash. For that reason, it should be split up."
The July 23 accident occurred when a train that stopped after a lighting strike was rear-ended by a second locomotive. A preliminary investigation attributed the crash to a signalling fault. The State Administration of Work Safety is now leading a full probe, Xinhua says. The government also fired three officials, including the head of the regional rail bureau, and started a review of railway safety.
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