The rescue operation was scaled down as darkness drew over the horrific scene of the collision between two
trains at Gaisal in West Bengal. It was feared that rescuers might injure themselves as they stumbled in the darkness amongst the twisted remains of the trains.
The death toll had reached 250 and was expected to rise as rescue workers tackled the remaining two carriages which had been buried beneath the wreckage of the train. They had been difficult to reach due to the sheer scale of the destruction. Authorities believe that there may be as many as 350 in these vehicles. There is little hope of finding many more survivors. Some estimates suggest that the final figure for fatalities could go beyond 500.
The collision occurred at around 01:30 (local time) and involved the Brahmputra Mail train from Gauhati and the Awadh-Assam Express from New Delhi. The crowded trains carrying around 1000 passengers each, met on the same line with an impact so severe that one of the locomotives "flew" into the air. None of the 4 crew from the locomotives survived. Seven coaches of the first train and five of the second were destroyed. The wreckage caught fire and many of the victims are believed to have perished in the flames.
UN Secretary General expresses shock
The UN Secretary General Kofi Annan expressed his shock when he heard of the accident. His spokesperson, Fred Eckhard said "He deeply regrets the heavy loss of life and shares the grief of the many afflicted families."
The cause of the accident remains uncertain. An "urgent" investigation is to be started to determine how and why the two trains came to be on the same line. Investigators will examine the possibility that it was due to "human error" a causal factor in around 60% of rail accidents in India. A mechanical failure, another major cause will also be investigated. Unusually, the investigation is to be conducted by the Ministry of Civil Aviation, not the Railways. This, according to a government spokesman is to ensure an "impartial report."
Earlier reports suggested that there had been an explosion or bomb blast. Initially this was being blamed on separatist forces from the adjacent Assam district. A spokesperson for Indian Railways however refuted this saying "It is not an explosion or a bomb blast. It is a collision of two trains". It was however confirmed that the mail train was carring military supplies including explosives.
Gaisal is in a very remote location, 500 km (315 miles) north of Calcutta. The remoteness of the area has hampered rescue efforts. The nearest large city is 14 hours travelling by road. The limited medical facilities in the area are being stretched and many casualties are being treated in military hospitals.
Rail travel is very popular in India. Some 11 million people are carried each day on a network of 62,000 kilometres. Accidents are also very common with about 300 occurring each year. This figure remains small however when compared with the number of trains operated.
India's worst train collision in terms of fatalities was at Firozabad in 1995. A head-on collision between the Purshottam express, which had come to a halt after hitting a cow and the Kalindi express claimed the lives of 358 people.
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