Tragedy on tracks: 9 killed, 41 hurt in Bengal train accident | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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Tragedy on tracks: 9 killed, 41 hurt in Bengal train accident

Jun 18, 2024 05:54 AM IST

Nine people were killed and 41 injured as a freight train collided with a slow passenger train in North Bengal, blamed on human error, sparking a political tussle.

Kolkata/New Delhi At least nine people were killed and another 41 injured when a freight train smashed into the rear of a slow Kanchanjunga Express in north Bengal on Monday morning, with railway officials blaming human error for the grim accident that also sparked a political tussle.

People gather at the site of the accident in Darjeeling on Monday. (ANI)
People gather at the site of the accident in Darjeeling on Monday. (ANI)

The driver of the goods train and the guard of the express train were among those killed in the crash that came roughly a year after India’s worst railway accident in three decades in Odisha left 296 dead and lingering questions about safety abroad the public transporter.

The Kanchanjunga Express, carrying 1,300 people from Sabroom in Tripura to Sealdah in Kolkata, had slowed down to a canter just outside Rangapani, roughly 30km from the north Bengal terminus of New Jalpaiguri, when it was rammed from behind by the goods train at 8.55am.

“Suddenly, all of us heard a loud sound. Everything went upside down, and our compartment was suspended in the air. We were left helpless like that for close to 15 minutes when locals came to our rescue. I must have seen at least two people die,” said Abinath Mukherjee from Barasat in West Bengal who had boarded the train at Agartala.

Rescuers used iron rods and ropes to work free a carriage of the passenger train that was swept upwards to lodge on the roof of the freight train, nearly vertical. Several other bogies were strewn nearby.

The accident could have been much worse had it not been for two parcel compartments attached to the rear of the express — part of a scheduled switching operation more than 600km earlier in the journey.

“It was because of these coaches that the passenger coach didn’t get much impact,” said railway board chair Jaya Varma Sinha. She blamed the driver of the goods train for the accident. “Unfortunately, the driver (of the cargo train) also perished in the accident… Whatever we can gather from the situation, prima facie it seems there was a disregard for the signal,” she said, pointing to human error.

Sinha also said that the much-vaunted anti-collision system, Kavach, was not operational on the Guwahati-Delhi route. “We were in the process of installing the system on the line,” she told reporters.

Internal documents seen by HT said the automated signalling system was not working between Ranipatra Railway Station and Chattar Hat Junction since 5.50am, and that a clearance was issued to all trains to pass by signals in the segment since they were defunct, irrespective of whether they flashed red or yellow. “Initial investigation shows some signalling issues. The real reason for the accident will be known after detailed technical investigation,” said a senior railway official.

Train drivers passing through a segment impacted by signalling faults are issued a document known as T/A 912, which authorises pilots to skip red lights on the affected section, subject to some clauses. One such clause stipulates that pilots must drive at speeds below 15km/hr if conditions are clear, and below 10km/hr if it is raining (as it was on Monday morning). ​Another says all train drivers passing through the section must wait before every signal for a minute during day time and for two minutes during nights.

“After waiting for the prescribed time, the loco pilot should proceed with great caution at a speed not exceeding 15 kmph where visibility is not good. This must be followed until he crosses the entire affected section,” a second railway official explained. “The goods train driver was operating at a much higher than the prescribed speed limit leading to the accident,” he added.

A third railway official from the Northeastern Frontier Railway (NFR) corroborated this. “Before the accident, trains like 15909 Avadh Assam Express and 15710 New Jalpaiguri-Malda Town Intercity Express also passed the section with the existing protocols of halt at red signal and then moving with caution. Hence, it seems that the loco pilot of the goods train did not follow the rule.”

Railway minister Ashwini Vaishnaw visited the site in the afternoon. “Right now our focus is on restoration. This is the main line. The rescue operation has been completed. This is not the time for politics. I will also meet the injured,” Vaishnaw told reporters. He said the commissioner of railway safety will conduct an inquiry and submit its report at the earliest.

But he faced sharp criticism from the Opposition that blamed the railways for the accident and poor maintenance of the world’s second-largest track network. “No attention is being paid to the safety of passengers. Bathrooms are in bad shape and food is also very bad. The only aim of this government is privatisation,” West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee said before leaving for the accident site.

Some railway unions also blamed the authorities for accusing the goods train driver who was dead before an inquiry was complete. “It is highly objectionable to announce the loco pilot responsible when he is dead and CRS inquiry is pending. Two persons in the goods train could not have missed the signal. There was a problem in the signalling system and it could have caused the accident,” said Sanjay Pandhi, the working president of the Indian Railway Loco Runningmen Organisation.

Disaster relief personnel climbed over the mangled wreckage of four coaches strewn across the railway track, cutting through damaged doors and grills to pull people trapped under heaps of metal. “Our rescuers found three bodies and rescued five injured who were trapped in the bogies. All injured have been rushed to the hospital. As of Monday 7pm, all passengers have been shifted to hospital or released after first aid. Now the operation to clear the railway track is being done. The bogie of the goods train is still at the spot. It will also be cleared in an hour,” said Gurminder Singh, commandant of the National Disaster Relief Force’s second battalion.

The scale of the tragedy could have been far worse had the two parcel vans and the guard’s compartment not withstood much of the collision’s impact. A railway official said that a scheduled operational procedure at Lumding in Assam, 18stations before the accident site involved putting the parcel vans at the rear of the train. “The affected coaches were in the front till Lumding, where they were attached to the rear of the train,”added the official.

The accident came roughly a year after a horrific three-train crash in Balasore district of Odisha, where the Chennai-bound Coromandel Express rammed into a goods train around 6.56pm one Friday evening, the impact of the collision flinging several compartments into the adjacent track where the Howrah-bound Yesvantpur Express slammed into them four minutes later. At least 296 people died and 1,100 people injured in what was the worst railway accident in the country since 1995.

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