Train tragedy 'jungle of death'

TIM McGIRK

At 2.33am on Sunday, Gore Lal, a signalman at the west junction outside Firozabad, in northern India, heard a terrible roar that sounded like a bomb had been dropped, and he knew that he was in trouble.

The bang was the sound of the Purushottam Express slamming at 60mph into a stalled passenger train with such impact that five carriages were hurled into the air and another four were sledgehammered into a mass of steel and dead bodies.

The signalman ran away and last night, after he allegedly caused one of India's worst train disasters in 50 years - in which 335 people were killed and 500 injured - Mr Lal was still running.

Police are trying to determine whether the crash was caused by the signalman's carelessness or faulty points which allowed the express to gun through towards disaster.

One passenger, Ashwin Kumar, was jolted from his upper berth on the Delhi- bound express when the driver, too late, spotted the train ahead on the tracks and hit the brakes. "We were rudely awakened from our slumber as the train swayed from one end to the other thrice," Mr Kumar said. The other train, the Kalindi Express, had stopped after hitting a nilgai (deer). The driver was trying to drag the dead animal off the rails and repair the damaged brakes when the express rammed the Kalindi.

Many of the passengers never woke up: they were crushed instantly. Others died when carriages plunged off a 12ft bank into a watery ditch. A soldier said: "I was woken as my head hit an iron bar next to my berth. There was acute pain in my leg. Since it was completely dark , I could only hear the people yelling. It took me half an hour to find my way out."

Another survivor described the tangle of dead bodies as "a dark jungle of death". Among the dead were more than 20 of India's most promising junior athletes, returning from a training camp.

Rescue teams worked through monsoon rains to find survivors still thought to be trapped in the wreckage. The Prime Minister, P V Narasimha Rao, expressed "deep anguish" over the disaster and promised that the victims' relatives would receive 10,000 rupees (pounds 200) in compensation. Many of the those crammed into second-class coaches were poor labourers urers seeking work in Delhi.

Opposition politicians blamed Mr Rao's Congress government for the crash.

The right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party, the leading opposition group, accused the government of running down Indian railways, which every year moves one billion passengers on more than 7,000 lines.

Indians are rightfully proud of their railways. They say the trains, nearly all made in India, work better than anything else run by the government.

Lately though, many passengers complain that trains seldom run on time because the government has neglected trains and track. Even before the Firozabad crash, 109 people were killed and another 508 injured in train accidents this year alone.

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