Inquiry into 'Maoist link' to Indian train disaster

By Daniel Lak
Wednesday 25 December 2013 05:09

At least 80 people were killed when a Delhi-bound express train jumped the tracks in the early hours of yesterday.

Thirteen carriages of the luxury Rajdhani Express left the rails as it crossed a bridge near Rafiganj, 210kms (130 miles) south of the Bihar state capital, Patna. One plunged into the river and two were left dangling from the bridge in the disaster, which may have been caused by sabotage. An investigation has begun into whether Maoist rebels tampered with the tracks. There were more than 600 people on board.

Heavy monsoon rains during the first day of rescue efforts yesterday made it dangerous to use electric arc welders to cut through the twisted metal in search of survivors. "We can hear people calling out to us from deep in the wreckage," said one worker. "Even if we can't use our cutting torches, we'll keep digging with our bare hands." Medical workers had to saw off limbs to free some victims, ignoring their shrieks not to amputate. Survivors seeking missing people called their names over a squeaky public address system as soldiers drove back a crowd of onlookers.

Among the survivors was a Delhi-based businessman, Manish Ambani. Mr Ambani, 45, who has three children, was returning from a sales trip to Calcutta and had just fallen asleep in his first-class seat. "I was jolted awake," he said. "The train was bouncing up and down. At first it felt like a car driving over severe potholes. Then the whole train flipped right over. It was literally a somersault. Everyone was screaming. It was pitch dark and we all got hurt."

Mr Ambani was dragged from the wreckage by villagers five hours later to see a scene of horror. He said: "You could hear the howling [of the injured] from all the carriages. And the people who rescued told us to look over the side of the bridge where we'd derailed. There was a carriage in the water. There were no noises coming from it."

Most of the dead came from that carriage, the only part of the train to fall into the monsoon-swollen river. More than 180 passengers were injured. One described how a passenger who he had exchanged seats with died. "I was in the front row. I was lucky to escape but others in the coach got trapped," Aziz Mirza said.

The Railways minister, Nitish Kumar, who visited the twisted wreckage near the town of Gaya, about 500 miles east of Delhi, said the accident was caused by sabotage. "Metal plates holding the rails together had been torn off," he said. The junior Railways minister, Bandaru Dattatreya, blamed the shadowy Peoples' War Group, Naxalite Maoist guerrillas who have killed many policemen and government officials in the district of Gaya. "They did it," he said. "I'm certain it's them and they're trying to terrorise us again."

But the Deputy Prime Minister, Lal Krishna Advani, who is also the Interior minister, played down the sabotage theory. And the inspector general of police responsible for Indian railways, J K Sinha, said at the scene of the accident that another train had passed safely through the area moments before the Delhi express. "It looks more like an accident to me," he said. "We need to investigate before we jump to conclusions. It takes longer than a few minutes to sabotage a railway line."

Accidents are becoming frequent on India's vast rail network, transport activists say. Nearly five billion passengers travel by train in India each year – 13 million people a day. Many of railway lines and bridges are more than 100 years old, built by British companies before India gained independence. "Our trains and the rail lines never get enough money," said Allapat Verghese Poulouse, a former director of finance for Indian Railways.

"We tell politicians to spend more on safety on repairs. But all they do is lower fares around election time to get the votes of the poor."

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