Last month`s fatal train crash has shaken the country, not only causing the loss of lives and delayed and unclear explanations, but also undermining people`s confidence in the rail system.
Bai Ruoxue stands in line at the bus station of Fuzhou, capital city of eastern Fujian province, waiting to buy a ticket to her hometown of Zhaoan, in the southernmost part of the province. She decided to take the bus despite the fact that it takes three hours longer than the bullet train.
"I took train all the time in the past," said the 20-year-old college student. "I thought trains were safe and fast." But after the tragic train collision on July 23, Bai swore not to take bullet trains.
"My mom called me before I came here and told me that if I had to take the bullet train, just let her know, so she could burn incense and pray," Bai said.
Fuzhou was the terminal for trains D301 and D3115, the two trains involved in the accident that cost 40 people their lives.
Casual observation of a passing bullet train in the area reveals that it`s not yet back to business as usual.
On July 27, a journalist with the Jiefang Daily reported a half-empty train heading from Shanghai to Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, where the crash occurred.
"Many of the carriages had just two or three passengers," said the reporter, Zhu Chen.
Prior to the accident, a train running at this time was always full, said train attendant Quan Hongjiao.
While trains were once a reflexive choice, the accident has caused many people to consciously choose not to take them.
"Less people are choosing to ride trains on their tours," said a man surnamed Hao, a manager with Beijing Youth Travel Service Co.
But Wang Ting, a publicity official for the Fuzhou Railway Station, said the number of passengers began to rebound in the last couple of days, and even suggested that the amount of passengers was about the same as it had been before the accident, though she refused to give precise numbers, saying regulations don`t permit her to do so.
Some passengers complained, saying they have no choice but to take the train.
"I`d rather not take the train, but I certainly can`t quit my job," said Zhang Xiang in Fuzhou, who works in the city of Ningbo in Zhejiang. "I was afraid during the ride and dared not close my eyes to sleep," he said.
A photo forwarded by netizens on China`s most popular microblog website, weibo.com, captioned "brother safety," showed a man in Shanghai wearing a helmet and seat belt while on the bullet train. And there`s more, in front of him he had a bottle of medicine, drug powder for contusions, and a flashlight.
Of course, most recognized the humor of the photo, but nonetheless, some people readily admit that the train crash has changed their habits.
Yan Xuedong specifically booked a ticket in the middle of the train, where he gauged his survival chances would be best. "I think the carriages in the middle might be safer," he said.
Many now board trains somberly, no longer taking their safety for granted. A college student in Zhejiang surnamed Zhang said that since the accident he remains in contact with his family while on the train.
"Yes, things have changed. Now I send a text message to my parents when I get on the train and tell them the train`s number, and when I arrive I let them know I made it safely," he said.
Zhang isn`t alone in taking these steps. A Xinhua reporter at Fuzhou railway station witnessed many passengers calling their families to tell them their train number and which carriage they were assigned. Some even took photos of their tickets and sent it to their relatives.
Trains are the primary mode of transport in China, according to a research by the China Youth Daily in 2009. More than 80 percent of the 3,000 respondents said trains were "cheaper, safer and faster."
The development of China`s high-speed railways surged after the State Council created a medium- and long-term development plan for the country`s railway network in 2004. Train speeds have increased significantly since then, with bullet trains being put into use on major railways.
By the end of 2010, 8,358 km of high-speed railways had been put into operation, ranking the first in the world in terms of length.
According to the railway network development plan, which was revised in 2008, the total length of the country`s railways is expected to reach 13,000 km by 2010 and 16,000 km by 2020.
China announced its ambition to send 1.9 billion passengers in 2011 at the National Railway Work Conference this past January.
Peng Qiyuan, head of the School of Traffic and Logistics at Southwest Jiaotong University, said bullet trains are generally safe in terms of design.
"A train should be equipped with a detector that can automatically check the signal in front," he said. "Two trains should be kept strictly 7,000 to 8,000 meters apart."
Ma Guanghai, a professor with the School of Philosophy and Social Development, understands people`s panic.
"Bus accidents are frequently reported, and airplane accidents are hard to escape, so as a result, people like to take trains," he said.
Ma said this accident has seriously undermined people`s confidence, especially at a time when many of the new Beijing-Shanghai high-speed trains have been late and online communication spreads information quickly.
Premier Wen Jiabao said last week that prioritizing safety for China`s high-speed railways is the only way to win trust from foreign countries.
"High-speed railway development should integrate speed, quality, efficiency and safety, and safety should be put in first place," he said.
But Wang noted that what the nation`s people want to see is real change -- not pledges and platitudes.
"We need to improve the management level and facilities to convince the passengers that trains are still reliable," he said.
Meanwhile, he said the railway authority should change its attitude toward the public.
When asked about the controversial burying of the carriages, Wang Yongping, spokesman for China`s Ministry of Railways, said the move was to facilitate rescue work, and added "whatever you think, I believe in it," and that particular choice of words angered many.
"Authorities should be more sincere and reflect on their mistakes, so as to win forgiveness from the public," Wang said.
His view was shared by passengers.
A man from a law firm in Beijing, who only identified himself as Liu, just bought an airline ticket to Jinan, capital of eastern Shandong province, although the journey by train would have only taken three hours.
"I would still take trains in the future," he said. "But only after a thorough check throughout the system and assurances that all loopholes are mended."