In the middle of the night, a signal error put trains on a deadly course One track, two crowded trains. Like a pair of towns on a collision course

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The Independent Online
IT WAS before dawn, and on board the two trains the passengers were dozing on wooden seats in the sticky, cramped heat of the Bengali night.

The Brahmaputra Mail was racing towards New Delhi, India's capital, while the Awadh-Assam Express was heading north-east towards Guwahati in the state of Assam. At the remote station of Gaisal, the two trains were supposed to pass.

Precisely how both trains managed to join the same line with such lethal consequence was last night not clear. The outcome, however, was apparent in all its horror.

The two trains collided at 1.55am local time, causing a terrible noise that could be heard for miles. Passengers were hurled through the open windows and into the darkness while the impact sent the engine of the express train flying into the air. The force of the impact may also have set off explosives that were being transported with soldiers heading towards Assam, a state that has recently been the focus of insurrection. Some reports said many of the victims had been engulfed in flames.

As daylight broke yesterday in India's south-east, the full extent of the damage caused by the collision became clear. Many of the carriages were standing almost vertical, having been torn from their couplings and flung from the track. Others had been crumpled like a squeezed concertina, emptied of its air. Shattered bodies lay trapped among the twisted steel while those that had been cut from the debris were laid out along under the track and covered by white sheets.

As the day went on and volunteers managed to reach more of the carriages, the death toll rose and the line of white-shrouds grew ever longer. Around the bodies lay shards of broken glass, clothes and suitcases scattered by the collision.

"Suddenly we heard a huge crack," said Prabir Dey, one of the survivors who had been asleep at the time of the collision. "One carriage carried right over our compartment." Another survivor, Naya Lakhi Bora, a soldier, added: "It was like a nightmare. It was completely dark and it sounded like a very loud explosion."

India is a country in which fatal train accidents are an everyday occurrence. Each year there are around 400 accidents which account for an average of 800 deaths, creating a certain resignation towards such statistics. But yesterday's accident - the second worst in India's history and the third worst in the world - was shocking in its scale. "We are used to seeing bodies daily but I have never seen anything like this," said one of the doctors involved in the emergency operation.

Almost immediately, the government promised a full inquiry into the incident and said the accident underlined the need for more investment in a rail network that has some 70,000 miles of track and is used by 13 million people each day. Visiting injured survivors at a hospital close to the scene, Nitish Kumar, the Railways Minister, said: "How can two trains come on to the same track when there is a double line here?"

Last night, experts said that whatever the specific findings of any forthcoming inquiry, they believed the accident was essentially the result of a system that had too many people and too little investment. As a result accidents had become increasingly common.

Former members of the country's railway board said that since 1951 freight traffic had increased by 620 per cent while passenger numbers had risen by 514 per cent. Over the same period, investment into dealing with such increases has risen by just 200 per cent.

"The increase in the density of the traffic naturally means the reaction time of the railway staff is reduced and increases stress and strain on them," said one former board member. Another expert said that around 70 per cent of accidents were the result of human error caused by such stress.

Despite the promises of the Indian government to tackle its bureaucratic and ageing railway system, the problem of accidents appears to be getting worse rather than better.

In the last five years there have been at least 15 serious railway crashes in India involving fatalities - including an accident in August 1995 when 358 people were killed.

In that incident, an express train rammed the back of another train which had stopped in the early hours because a cow had walked on to the line. A signalman gave the crowded second train the green line to proceed, having failed to notice that the first one had stopped. The signalman subsequently fled the scene. In November 1998, a total of 208 people were killed when two trains collided in the northern town of Khanna.

India also suffered the world's worst ever railway accident when 800 people were killed in 1981 in the northern state of Bihar when a cyclone blew a passenger train from the tracks and into a river.

Human casualty tolls can often be extremely high in India because trains are extremely long and crowded. Many people ride on the roof of the trains to escape the need to buy a ticket.

Yesterday, doctors working at the scene of the Gaisal crash said they feared the death toll would rise even further as more people were cut from the wreckage of the packed second-class carriages.

India's Worst

Rail Crashes

20 August 1995

An express train (above) slams into a train that had stopped after hitting a cow near the north-central town of Firozabad 358 killed

26 November 1998

Two trains collide in the northern town of Khanna 208 killed

14 September 1997

Five train carriages veer off the tracks and plunge into a river in central India

81 killed

21 September 1993

A passenger train collides with a cargo train near Chhabra in Rajasthan

71 killed

18 April 1996

A passenger train rams into a stationary cargo train near Gorakhpur in northern India

60 killed