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Samastipur, India   
6 June 1981      

The facts of the accident at Samastipur are far from clear


The worst accident in history?

Following the recent tragedy at Gaisal in India's northern province of West Bengal many reports cited the 1981 accident as being the worst rail accident ever. However, due to many factors which plague accurate fact gathering about incidents in India, it is far from certain that this accident claimed even as many lives as the Gaisal accident.

What is known is that on 6 June 1981, close to the town of Samastipur, a passenger train became derailed and seven of its coaches plunged into the River Bagmati. A large number of people were killed, many of whom drowned. It is also known that after five days 212 bodies had been recovered. Beyond that, the facts are less than clear.

Reports of the accident were inconsistent and often confusing with its cause being given two, equally unlikely explanations. The Rural Development Minister for the region stated that the train was deraiIed after a sudden brake application. A contemporary report added credibility to this by adding that the train braked because there was a buffalo on the line. It is unlikely however that braking alone would cause such a derailment. The distribution of the forces incurred in braking a passenger train is fairly even. Each of vehicles is individually braked and they are of similar weights. The explanation would hold more credibility if it had been applied to a goods train as Semmens (1994) points out "there is a slightly higher risk of that happening to a freight, with adjacent wagons possibly having widely differing axle loads and/or braking abilities". But with a passenger train, in the train is individually braked.

Another explanation came from the chairman of the lndian Railways Board. He stated that the train had been blown into the river during a storm. Doubt about this expalnation is raised as surely the local Minister would have known of conditions so severe to cause the accident. Confusion about the accident was further spread in accounts of the number of casualties.

Trains in India a frequently overcrowded with coaches being packed to as much as three times their design capacity. Many would be travelling illegally, without tickets. It is therefore uncertain how many passengers may have been in the train. That the train was overcrowded is certain, but offers only an inexact view of the actual numbers travelling. Following the accident, officials stated that there may have been over 1000 people killed and some suggested that the death toll might even exceed 3000. Caste taboos had hampered recovery of the bodies. When local boatmen were offered £5.00 for each body recovered, they refused. The Indian navy had plans to recover an estimated 500 bodies using underwater explosives.

The known number of dead stands at 212 and although it is most probable that the death toll was higher, the precise number can only be an estimate.


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This file last updated: Monday, 16-Aug-1999 13:30:25 EDT
Copyright © David Fry 1999