More than 230 people were killed and hundreds more injured when a passenger train derailed and hit two other trains in eastern India on Friday, officials said, a rail disaster whose toll was extremely high even by the standards of a nation with a long history of deadly accidents .
The disaster in Odisha state shocked India, now the world’s most populous country, and renewed long-standing questions about safety problems in a system that transports more than eight billion passengers a year. The country has invested heavily in the system in recent years, but it hasn’t been enough to overcome decades of neglect.
Odisha Chief Secretary Pradeep Jena said on Saturday that 238 people died in the crash and 900 others were injured. Authorities said they expected the death toll to rise. The cause of the derailment is unclear.
As day broke, teams of rescuers with dogs and cutting equipment struggled to free injured people trapped in the wreckage of the twisted train cars. Officials said 115 ambulances had been mobilized and that all nearby hospitals were on standby.
The government of the state, home to about 45 million people, declared a day of mourning after India’s worst rail disaster in two decades. Dozens of trains were cancelled. Army, Air Force and National Disaster Response Force teams were mobilized to assist. And there were people near the crash site in line to donate blood.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised “all possible help” to the victims and offered his condolences. A senior official confirmed that Mr Modi is likely to visit the disaster site on Saturday.
“In this hour of grief, my thoughts are with the bereaved families,” Mr Modi wrote on Twitter. “Hope the injured recover soon.”
The accident occurred when several coaches of a train derailed and collided with a second coach in Balasore district, the train’s operator, South Eastern Railway, said in a statement. Local authorities said the tangle eventually involved a third freight train.
Some of the passengers were returning to the eastern state of West Bengal from information technology or nursing jobs in southern India, The Indian Express newspaper reported. Others were day laborers.
Ashok Samal, a shopkeeper, told The Hindustan Times that he was finishing his day near the railway line in his village of Bahanaga on Friday when he heard a deafening noise, ran to the track on the main line between Kolkata and Chennai and saw a pile of damaged carriages.
“There were loud screams and blood everywhere,” he told the newspaper, adding that he saw people trapped under the carriages and people screaming for help.
Ashwini Vaishnau, the railways minister, told reporters on Saturday that he had ordered an inquiry to determine the cause of the accident.
“Our immediate focus is on rescue and relief,” he said from the scene. “We will know more after the investigation.”
The crash is the country’s deadliest since at least a 1999 crash in West Bengal that killed around 285 people when two trains collided head-on.
India’s railway system, one of the largest in the world, was first developed in the 19th century by the British colonial authorities. Today, more than 40,000 miles of tracks—enough to circle the earth about one and a half times—spread like capillaries over a nation about twice the size of Alaska that stretches from the Himalayas to the rainforest.
In 2005, at least two dozen people were killed when a crowded passenger train collided with a stalled freight train in the western state of Gujarat. Six years later, dozens died when a mail train derailed in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, east of New Delhi.
In 2016, more than 100 passengers died in another derailment in Uttar Pradesh. Two years after that, dozens of people were mowed down by a speeding train in the northwestern state of Punjab while celebrating a Hindu festival with fireworks.
In 2021 alone, there were more than 16,000 train-related deaths, according to the country’s National Crime Records Bureau. This figure includes cases where people were struck while walking on tracks or fell from moving trains.
In recent years, passenger safety has been a focus in India.
In 2012, a commission appointed to review the safety of the rail network cited “a bleak picture of inadequate performance, largely due to poor infrastructure and resources”. It recommended a range of emergency measures, including upgrading tracks, repairing bridges, removing crossings and replacing old buses with ones that better protect passengers in the event of an accident.
Since then, the Modi administration has spent tens of billions of dollars renovating and modernizing old trains and tracks.
On Saturday, Mr. Modi was due to inaugurate by video conference India’s 19th Vande Bharat Express train, a new electric model manufactured in the country. It has technology designed to help reduce the risk of collisions and will run between the western city of Mumbai and the southern state of Goa.
Mr Modi’s office said on Friday that the train would “provide the people of the region with a means of traveling with speed and comfort”.
But in a system weakened by years of neglect, deadly problems persist. And instead of launching a new train on Saturday, Mr. Modi was dealing with a national emergency.
Indian news reports said that as news of the crash in Odisha spread, distraught relatives went to Howrah station, near Kolkata, where one of the trains was headed, to find out the condition of their loved ones.
In Howrah, a man, Sapan Chowdhury, told The Indian Express that he was relieved to know that his 23-year-old daughter was alive despite being injured by shards of glass.
Others were not so lucky.
Victoria Kim contributed reporting.