AN EXPRESS TRAIN plowed into a crowd of Hindu pilgrims in eastern India Monday, killing 37 and triggering a riot that left one of the drivers dead and carriages ablaze, officials said.
The pilgrims were crossing the tracks at a station in the state of Bihar when the high-speed passenger train struck them, a senior police officer said.
“The death toll is now 37,” S.K. Bharadwaj, an additional director general of police, told AFP. Nine women and four children were among the dead.
“Dozens of people have been injured. We do not have exact figures of those injured because they were taken away to various hospitals,” he said.
Angry crowds went on the rampage, attacking the Rajya Rani Express which stopped after the accident. They attacked its drivers, killing one and seriously injuring another, Bharadwaj said.
“One of the drivers of the train who was beaten up by the agitators has died. The other driver is struggling for his life in the hospital,” he said.
The crowd also set carriages on fire and ransacked the station in the small town of Dhamara Ghat, 154 miles from the state capital Patna, local railway chief Arun Malik told AFP.
“Six carriages have been set on fire and the station has been ransacked by the mob. Our staff have fled the station fearing attacks,” Malik said.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh “expressed deep sorrow and shock at the loss of lives” and appealed for calm, a statement from his office said.
So much blood
Suman Kumar Jha, a college student on board the express when it rammed into the pilgrims, said he was “numbed” to see “so much blood all around”.
“I got down from the train after the accident. I was shocked to see severed heads and limbs scattered on the tracks. It was really very disturbing,” he told local TV channels.
Bodies were placed in a line alongside the tracks, their faces covered by articles of clothing, as passengers gathered nearby. Fire and smoke was also seen on TV billowing from carriages and windows smashed.
A senior railways official said it appeared the pilgrims were unaware of the oncoming train on the middle of the station’s three tracks.
“Two trains were already stationary on other tracks and the Rajya Rani Express was given permission to pass,” Arunendra Kumar, chairman of the national railway board, told reporters in New Delhi.
Standing on the tracks
“The accident occurred because some people left the platform of the station and came on the tracks,” Kumar said.
Railways Minister Mallikarjun Kharge told parliament that his latest figures put the death toll at 28 but Bihar’s chief minister Nitish Kumar said 37 people had died in the accident.
“The driver of the train saw some persons standing on the tracks. He applied the emergency brakes but some persons got run over by the train,” he told lawmakers.
Large numbers of pilgrims had been gathering at a nearby temple to offer prayers, according to the Press Trust of India. Some of them were Kanwarias who are devotees of Lord Shiva, the god of destruction.
There are hundreds of accidents on the railways annually.
15,000 deaths every year
In 2012 a government report said that almost 15,000 people were killed every year on India’s railways. It described the deaths as an annual “massacre” due to poor safety standards.
Pedestrians guilty of “unlawful trespassing” walk across the tracks at many unofficial crossing points, the report said, adding that about 6,000 of the deaths occur in the congested and frenetic city of Mumbai alone.
Attempts to stop people riding on the roofs of trains have largely failed, vehicles routinely drive around barriers at crossings and passengers are often seen hanging out of open carriage doors.
The data is not broken down, but a vast majority of the deaths are people falling from the open doors of carriages or being hit on the tracks, which are mostly unfenced.
One of India’s worst rail accidents was in 1981 when a train plunged into a river also in Bihar, killing an estimated 800 people.