Carnage at level crossing after packed bus hits train

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The Independent Online

At least 37 people were killed and scores injured in a collision between a bus and a train in Sri Lanka yesterday. At least 10 of the injured were in a critical condition.

At least 37 people were killed and scores injured in a collision between a bus and a train in Sri Lanka yesterday. At least 10 of the injured were in a critical condition.

The accident highlighted the increasing death toll on the roads in south Asia, where bus drivers are under huge pressure from their employers to meet often impossible timetables, and warning lights at level crossings are often ignored.

It appears that the bus driver ignored the warning lights and closed barricades at a level crossing and tried to cross before the approaching train. All of the dead were on the bus. The bus driver was arrested after being found in a hospital with minor injuries.

Trains travel much slower than in the West, which leads many car and bus drivers to believe mistakenly that they can cross the line ahead of them.

In Sri Lanka, where the barricades at level crossings block off only part of the road, buses routinely slip through the open part as the train approaches.

"The signal was green and the level-crossing gates were closed," the train driver, H A Sirasena, told reporters yesterday.

"Then I saw the bus trying to cross ... and the next thing I knew was the engine hitting the rear of the bus. After the first impact, the bus spun around and hit the train again.

"I have been in this job for 41 years and this is the first time something like this has happened."

Mr Sirasena and the train conductor were slightly injured, but none of the train passengers was hurt.

Witnesses spoke of broken glass and children's clothes scattered across the track at the scene of the accident, Polgahawela, which is about 40 miles north-east of Colombo.

"I was sitting at the very back of the bus," said Priyalatha Imbulgoda. "I saw flames coming from the front. There was little time to do anything. Some neighbours from my village were sitting next to me, I don't know what happened to them."

A passenger on the train, K Navaratne, said: "I saw body parts strewn along the track and more bodies were stuck in the bus and people were screaming for help. The driver of the bus should be shot."

According to Sri Lankan Railways, 99 passengers were on board the bus, which almost certainly means it was overloaded.

Reports from Sri Lanka suggested the bus driver was racing a bus from a rival company - which is a common practice in South Asia, where private bus companies put enormous pressure on their drivers to arrive before the competition.

With no job security under south Asia's limited labour laws, the drivers frequently take large amounts of caffeine and other stimulants to keep themselves going through punishing schedules.

The Sri Lankan Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapakse, who visited the scene, said he would recommend new measures to punish drivers who broke traffic laws. The accident comes after Sri Lanka suffered the worst rail disaster in history in December.

The 800 deaths on board the Queen of the Sea service were part of the vast tragedy of the Boxing Day tsunami. The train was hit by the tsunami as it broke across Sri Lanka's coast.

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