At least 35 Hindu pilgrims were killed and nearly a dozen injured when they were run over by the Rajya Rani Express in eastern India Monday morning, triggering a riot that left one of the drivers dead and multiple coaches ablaze.
The pilgrims had just disembarked from a local train at the Dhamara Ghat station in the state of Bihar and were on their way to a nearby temple in Saharsa district. They were illegally crossing the tracks when the high-speed train struck them.
An enraged crowd then dragged out the driver and began beating him before setting parts of the train on fire, "sending up a pillar of thick black smoke that could be seen miles away."
More than 15,000 people die due to illegal crossings every year highlighting the country's dire need to deal with its aging railway system and infrastructure. During a season of terrible accidents in India, this one also stands out not just because of the number of pilgrims killed and injured but due to the disgraceful reaction that followed.
According to the New York Times, hours passed before firefighters and rescue workers could approach the site of the accident. Even a train dispatched to help the wounded was forced to halt on the tracks a mile away. Nine women and four children were among the dead, and the death toll is expected to rise.
Railway officials said the express train was travelling at a high speed, typically around 50 miles an hour, since it was not expected to stop at Dhamara Ghat station — a remote station inaccessible by road.
Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, a top official at the railway ministry, said the driver had pulled the emergency brake when he saw people on the tracks but was unable to stop the train. When it did stop a few hundred metres away, the mob pulled out the drivers, killing one and severely injuring the other.
"One of the drivers of the train who was beaten up by the agitators has died," said S.K. Bharadwaj, an additional director general of police. "The other driver is struggling for his life in the hospital," he said.
Passengers who were on board the train fled as the mob ransacked the station and set six carriages on fire.
"I got down from the train after the accident. I was shocked to see severed heads and limbs scattered on the tracks," said Suman Kumar Jha, a college student on board the express. "It was really very disturbing."
The chief minister of Bihar called it "the rarest of rare tragedies" and pledged 200,000 rupees (around $3,180) to the victims' families. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also released a statement calling for "calm in the area so that the relief and rescue operations can be carried out without any hindrance," according to local reports.
The railway system is an intrinsic part of daily life in India, with nearly 20 million Indians riding the colossal network of train lines every day. Accidents, sadly, are not uncommon.
According to a government report in 2012, almost 15,000 people are killed annually simply while trying to cross the railway lines. These deaths, according to the report, are due to a lack of infrastructure and outdated technology, which include unmanned train crossings, a shortage of barricades and pedestrian bridges, and a lack of facilities such as elevators for the disabled. According to the report, there are currently 14,869 unmanned level crossings which contribute to an average of 40 deaths every day.
So far, attempts to prevent people from riding on the roofs have largely failed. It is also common place to see passengers hanging out of open carriage doors as well.
Vast slums near the railway tracks also have thousands of people guilty of "unlawful trespassing" and walking the tracks everyday "as though it were their backyard." The report recommended a budget of about $20 billion over the next five years to implement changes and improve safety conditions.
“No civilised society can accept such a massacre on their railway system,” the report said, referring to the deaths of people crossing the tracks. “Reluctance of the Indian railways to own up to the casualties, which do not fall under the purview of accidents, but are nevertheless accidents on account of trains, can by no means be ignored.”
Most of these lines still have infrastructure left over from colonial times and have not modernized to meet the needs of India's constantly growing population. Many rickety carriages that currently in use date from the late 1980s. Parts of them may be older than that.
Building more pedestrian bridges and overpasses as well as barricades between train lines, for example, could discourage people from illegally crossing the tracks. The situation is especially dire in Mumbai where "four or five tracks, or more, lie parallel and people living in slums on either side have no choice but to walk on the tracks," according to railway experts.
The recent price hike in railway fares is a step in the right direction over the next five years but requires swift infrastructural planning and execution sooner than later to improve the safety conditions of a system used daily by almost 20 million people. In addition to these infrastructural improvements, there needs to be a change in citizens' reaction to any kind of disaster. The often-seen mob mentality in the country will not save or change lives, but only make a terrible accident a shameful tragedy.
In light of this terrible catastrophe, lawmakers and citizens alike need to push for both swift critical changes to improve the country's railway system and a more unified, non-violent reaction in dealing with these tragedies.