Train disaster turns focus on India′s shoddy railways | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 21.11.2016
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Train disaster turns focus on India's shoddy railways

The death of over 140 people in the latest train accident in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, the worst such tragedy in six years, has once again put the spotlight on train safety in India. Murali Krishnan reports.

The disaster that took place on Sunday, November 20, involving a fast train - the Indore-Patna Express - which was traversing at around 120 kilometers per hour has once again renewed anxiety about the cheap safety standards of India's state-run rail network, the fourth largest in the world. 

The train was on its way to Patna, the capital of the northern state of Bihar, from Indore in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, and more than 2,000 people are believed to have been on the train.

Fourteen coaches of the train derailed near the industrial town of Kanpur, killing over 140 on board while injuring more than 200.

The death toll is likely to go up even further, as many bodies are still being extricated. Passengers, many of them families who were traveling for weddings, were jolted out of their sleep in the middle of their 27-hour journey between Indore and Patna by a loud bang, followed by violent rattling as almost all the coaches leapt from the tracks and smashed up against each other in a mangled heap.

"I have lost my brother Manish. He is dead. Now I am still trying to locate and identify my other relatives who could be in hospital," Raghav Puri told DW from Kanpur. Such sorrowful stories abound.

Rescue workers, including the army and the police, used cranes and gas cutters to lift the last of the twisted metal wreckage to check for bodies underneath the crushed coaches and to pull out survivors.

Many tragedies

The mishap has once again turned focus to the issue of railway safety in India. "We have ordered an inquiry and need to establish if the accident was caused by a fracture of the tracks. It seems strange because just minutes before the incident, another fast train had passed on the same tracks," the Commissioner of Railway Safety, P K Acharya, told DW.

He is probing whether a fracture in the tracks was a possible cause of the accident, which led to the coaches to not only go off the rails but pile up, leading to high casualties.

"The cause will be known only after the inquiry.  I would not like to speculate on this tragic accident but this is a very serious incident," S K Agarwal, a senior railway official, told DW.

It is well known going by the history of train disasters in India that derailment is the cause of a majority of all accidents. In the past, there have been even worse accidents, like in Bihar in 1981, when an estimated 500 to 800 people died as a passenger train derailed on a bridge and plunged into the Baghmati River. In another incident in August 1995, over 350 were killed when an express train collided with a stationary train.

And the latest crash is India's worst rail tragedy since the collision of a passenger and a goods train in 2010, which the government blamed on sabotage by Maoist rebels.

The South Asian nation's largely colonial-era railway network carries about 23 million people daily, but is saturated and in decrepit shape.

A stark reminder

The latest accident occurred at a time when the present government has been trying to make rail journey a pleasurable experience and more importantly, a safe one.

"We will get to the bottom of this very soon. This is very unfortunate and I want to assure citizens that this should not scare them," Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu told DW.

In the massive outlay for railways in this year's budget, there was a big scheme to achieve a "zero accident mission." However, the accident has brought into question the money spent on asset maintenance, including track renewal.

It is also a stark reminder of the obstacles facing Prime Minister Narendra Modi in delivering on his promise to turn the railways into a more efficient, safer network. 

Modi this year pledged record levels of investment and has announced a new high-speed line funded by Japan, but the main network has made little progress on upgrading tracks or signaling equipment.

Apart from improving passenger security, the Indian Railways has also embarked on a mission of upgrading track infrastructure, and introducing long welded rails and track patrols to prevent railway infrastructure from falling into disrepair.

Sadly, it is still poorly funded despite several agreements with private companies in Japan and South Korea to improve the rail network. And observers say a lot more still needs to be done to upgrade the massive 65,000 kilometers of tracks and install modern signaling equipment on the network. Analyst estimates suggest that the country's railways require some $300 billion of investment by 2020.