India’s worst rail accident so far this century left at least 900 injured and 288 dead in the state of Odisha on Friday. The sequence of the catastrophe began with the derailment of two carriages of a passenger train that had left Calcutta bound for Madras, the two large cities in the east of the country. The violent collision of these wagons with a freight train that was parked near the town of Bahanaga was the least of it. Moments later, an express that had left Bangalore bound for Calcutta collided with unheard-of violence against the wagons that had been stranded on the wrong track.
The number of victims should increase and could reach “380 deaths”, according to an Odisha civil protection official, who reveals that corpses continue to be removed and that many of the injured rescued “arrive lifeless at the hospital or die within a few hours”.
The accident took place around 7:20 p.m. local time. Only yesterday morning, with the first light, the magnitude of the tragedy was revealed. The rescue teams worked throughout the night and on Saturday at noon they finally reached the last wrecked wagon, completely crushed. Unusually in India, the nearby town of Balasore saw very long lines of young men willing to donate blood. Most of the victims are known to have been passengers in the cheapest carriages, without prior booking, returning from Bengal to their places of work in the south and south-east of the country.
Train accidents are common in the country: in 2020 there were 13,018 accidents
Images of the accident show fifteen wagons overturned on the tracks, with several people on them trying to rescue the passengers who had been trapped.
As reported by Indian Railways, the collision between the first two trains involved occurred around 7:00 p.m., after which another passenger train passing at high speed collided with several of the overturned carriages.
Indian Railways had to suspend half a hundred trains on Friday night and another forty were diverted. The healthy carriages of the damaged train bound for Calcutta continued on their route after a cursory inspection, in the middle of the night. First at ten kilometers per hour to Balasore and then, after a second check at dawn, at forty kilometers per hour.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as usual, allocated financial compensation for the families of the victims. Although his government assured, after one of the last serious rail accidents, that it was going to generalize an automatic anti-crash system, this was not yet in use in the affected section.
Meanwhile, the nearby hospitals, in Soro or Balasore, resemble war zones, according to witnesses, totally overwhelmed by the arrival of hundreds of wounded.
In 2020, there were 13,018 rail accidents in India, in which 11,986 people died and another 11,127 were injured; collisions were the cause of 70% of the claims.
India’s rail network, largely inherited from British India, is impressive in its length and the volume of passengers carried. But improvements in speed, safety or comfort are progressing very slowly, except in some flagship lines. Other projects heralded with fanfare more than a decade ago, such as the Bombay-Ahmedabad high-speed line, remain stuck.