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Monday, August 2, 1999 Published at 21:34 GMT 22:34 UK


World: South Asia

Death toll rises in train disaster

Officials believe the crash was due to signal failure

Emergency teams in eastern India have scaled down their operation to reach the survivors and victims of an overnight train collision which has claimed the lives of over 250 people and injured hundreds more.


Daniel Lak reports: "The longer it takes, the less hope there is of finding survivors"
Almost 24 hours after the crash, rescue efforts ended as night fell and hopes faded for more survivors.

Throughout the day, rescuers had combed through the twisted stack of rail carriages hurled atop one another by the force of the collision. They had been hampered by a lack of cranes to pull the steel wreckage apart.

Doctors, who were working since early morning, said they feared hundreds remain trapped in second-class carriages, which often carry twice as many people as they are designed to hold.


[ image: Provisional casualty lists were displayed at the station in Delhi]
Provisional casualty lists were displayed at the station in Delhi
The collision happened at 0130 local time (2000 GMT) when an express train bound for Delhi hit another train head-on at Gaisal station, in the state of West Bengal.

The Brahmputra Mail train from Gauhati passed through the station where the Awadh-Assam Express was stationary.

(Click here to see a map of crash scene)

The engine of the express was blasted into the air by the impact of the explosion.

Both trains are believed to have been carrying about 1,000 passengers.

Explosions were heard and initially a bomb attack was suspected, but it now appears both trains ended up on the same line after a signal failure.

500 feared dead

Fifteen carriages were ripped apart by the collision, hurling sleeping passengers around the compartments.

Businessman Prabir Dey, who survived the tragedy, said: "Suddenly we heard a huge crack. One carriage climbed right over our compartment."


Shanti Narain of India's Railways Ministry: "There are normally 1,000 passengers on these trains"
Mr Dey lost consciousness after the crash and woke up in a hospital in the nearby town of Islampur.

Reports say that the trains caught fire after ammunition belonging to an army unit exploded.


[ image:  ]
Ashok Chakravarti, a junior government official who visited the site, said some carriages had been completely burned out.

"Nobody inside that could have survived. Passengers have been charred to death," he said.

BBC correspondent Subir Bhaumik says medical facilities in this remote part of India are not sufficient to cope with a disaster on this scale.

The passengers on the Brahmaputra Mail were mostly army and paramilitary personnel, the Press Trust of India reported.

It is believed that explosives carried by some of the soldiers caught alight after the crash, giving rise to speculation about a bomb attack.

Call for tighter safety

Indian President KR Narayanan said the crash highlighted "the crying need to improve the safety measures of the railways for the benefit of the travelling public."


[ image:  ]
The president said he was "shocked and grieved" at the loss of life in the accident.

The Ministry of Railways has set up an investigative committee into the crash.

Railways Ministry secretary Shanti Narain said: "Either the signal failed or the driver of one of the trains ignored the signal."

Local reports say that the signalmen believed to have been involved with the tragedy have fled the scene, fearing arrest.


The BBC's Subir Bhaumik: "This is easily one of India's worst rail crashes"
Our correspondent says this is easily one of India's worst railway accidents and certainly the most serious in the east of the country.

If the rescuers' fears are confirmed, the toll from this accident will exceed that of the worst train disaster in recent years when about 300 people died after two express trains collided near Agra in 1995.

Most rail crashes have been blamed on human error or outdated signalling equipment.

Rail travel in India is cheap and very popular, but trains are notoriously over-crowded.


[ image:  ]

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