India's outdated railway system and the train driver come under fire as an inquiry begins into a crash that killed almost 70 people and injured 150.
Indian railways under scrutiny as crash toll climbs
KOLKATA // India's outdated railway system came under fire yesterday as an inquiry began into a crash that killed almost 70 people and injured 150. One train travelling at up to 70kph smashed into the back of another standing at the platform of Sainthia railway station in the eastern state of West Bengal, 190km north of Kolkata, at about 2am yesterday. Two passenger coaches and one luggage van of the stationary train were crushed. The crash was the second in West Bengal in less than two months. The Indian Railway chairman, Vivek Sahay, said yesterday that the driver of the Uttarbanga Express did not apply the brakes on time and rammed into the rear of the Vananchal Express. "Human error could have caused the accident. No effort was made by the drivers to stop the train," Mr Sahay said. The railway ministry announced that the accident will be investigated by an inquiry committee. Using gas cutters and other tools, rescuers pulled out injured passengers and bodies from the mangled wreckage of the two Vananchal coaches and the Uttarbanga engine, including the bodies of the driver and co-driver of the second train. The relief minister of West Bengal, Mortaza Hossain, said the death toll was over 65 and several of the wounded were in critical condition in hospitals. The railways minister, Mamata Banerjee, refused to rule out the possibility of sabotage and questioned the cause of this accident and others in recent weeks. "We are searching for information. Let us now find out the details. A few weeks ago there was a big train accident and now again there is another. I am very sad," said Ms Banerjee, referring to the May 28 derailment by Maoist saboteurs of the Mumbai-bound Gyaneswari Express in West Bengal, in which at least 148 people died. But the West Bengal civil defence minister Srikumar Mukherjee said there was no evidence of foul play in yesterday's crash. "It cannot be an act of sabotage. The tragic disaster has taken place because of negligence on the part of the railway administration," Mr Mukherjee said. Some witnesses to the accident, train passengers and local political leaders blamed the railways. Basudeb Acharya, a member of parliament with the Communist Party of India [Marxist] and the former chairman of the railway standing committee, said "outdated track and signal management system" of the railways was responsible for many train accidents including the one yesterday. "Following the train accident in Gaisal [in 1999] a government-instituted inquiry committee reported that the signalling system along the tracks in the entire region was of an outdated type and should be replaced immediately to avert future disasters. Even a decade after modernisation, work has not begun on most stretches," Mr Acharya said. "The number of trains is increasing, but tracks are not being modernised or being maintained well. Maintenance of equipment and safety measures are long neglected in the railways." The Indian railway, the fourth largest network in the world behind the US, Russia and China, operates 11,000 passenger trains and carries 18 million passengers and 1.4 million tonnes of freight every day. IIMS Rana, the former chairman of the Indian Railway Board, said India still lags behind on anti-collision technologies, which are standard in the West. "We don't have such systems. Money is also a constraint," Mr Rana said. "Collisions remain a big danger and they are always caused by human failure, despite our fail-safe systems." A vegetable trader travelling in Vananchal Express said that because his train was standing on platform No 4 of Sainthia station, the signal for Uttarbanga Express, which was scheduled to halt on the same platform after the departure of Vananchal Express, was red. "Uttarbanga Express should have waited at a safe distance from the platform following the red signal... an apparent overshooting of the signal by the drivers of the train possibly led to the collision," the trader said. "It is mysterious why the train approached the platform at the high speed of 60kph or 70kph when it had a scheduled halt on the platform." The impact of the crash was so powerful that a passenger coach of the Vananchal Express flew off the tracks and landed on a pedestrian flyover above the tracks. Most of the dead were from the rearmost unreserved coach of the Vananchal Express. "When I was fast asleep I was thrown off my berth following a huge explosion-like sound. Then many people were screaming for help," Rathin Ghosh, a passenger of Vananchal Express, said. "I think I lost my consciousness then. When I came back to my senses I found myself lying by the side of the railway track, apparently after I was rescued by some local villagers. Nearly all died in the adjacent compartment. I am so lucky that I am alive." firstname.lastname@example.org