One of the deadliest train disasters in India’s history has left rail passengers scared for their safety on the nation’s most used mode of transport.
More than 22 million people commute daily on nearly 11,000 trains on nearly 65,000km of the massive but creaking rail network, some of it established by British colonisers more than 150 years ago.
About 3,400 passengers were travelling on two express trains – the Coromandel Express which runs between the eastern cities of Kolkata and Chennai, and the Howrah Superfast Express, travelling north between the cities of Bengaluru and Howrah – when the Coromandel crashed into a stationary freight train and then into the other express.
The impact was so forceful that it caused at least a dozen coaches to derail.
Many carriages tumbled over on to another track and were hit by the Howrah Superfast Express, leaving hundreds of passengers trapped inside the mangled wreckage of the coaches.
Both passenger trains were travelling at about 125kph.
At least 275 people were declared dead and nearly 1,200 were injured.
But as the dust settles at the crash site and train services resume, rail commuters, especially the migrant class who travel in inexpensive express trains to far-away parts of the country in search of work, feel “scared and anxious” to undertake journeys.
At the bustling New Delhi railway station, the largest in the country, which records footfall of 360,000 people a day, passengers said they were nervous in the aftermath of the fatal crash.
Suraj Kumar told The National: “I am travelling from Delhi to Bangalore city in Karnataka and all I am praying for is that I reach it safely. I am nervous, what if something happens to me? I am poor and cannot afford flight tickets. The journey is long by train and I am filled with anxiety."
Mr Kumar, 21, is a migrant worker from the impoverished Bihar state and works as a welder. He is travelling with half a dozen fellow welders to Bangalore city for work at a shipbuilding company.
Surendra Mukhiya, 47, a painter, said he was still in shock and demanded the government conduct a proper investigation so such a disaster never happens again.
“There must be a thorough investigation to find out the cause of the accident, so it is never repeated. Poor people depend on railways and the government must ensure safety to passengers,” he said.
Mr Mukhiya travelled from Nepal’s Janakpuri to Delhi along with a dozen migrant workers. They will then travel to northern Punjab to work in the fields.
Nevertheless, the Indian Railway is a robust transport system.
Millions of people in the country rely on services that connect extremely remote villages and allow access to markets, a lifeline for job seekers and small businesses.
The express trains are particularly vital for people from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds who travel long distances, from one part of the country to another for work, for a fraction of the price of an air fare.
Many even board the trains without tickets or reservations and struggle to find a place to stand.
New railway push
India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has been modernising and expanding the railways.
From doubling railway tracks to minimising rail traffic, and equipping train stations with internet connections and “world-class” amenities, the government has been aggressively upgrading the network. In addition, the operation of semi-high-speed Vande Bharat or ‘Salute India’ trains has been expanded.
But many citizens feel these steps are not enough, especially for the financially disadvantaged.
Ashish Gaur, 21, who comes from Prayagraj in northern Uttar Pradesh state, works at a factory in western Rajasthan that makes car parts. He was travelling home to take his first-year BA exams.
“Most of the people who died were in the general compartments," he said. "They were poor people, mostly poor people travelling in those coaches. It is completely a fault of the government and the railway workers. They have to assure the safety to the people.
“These coaches are always overcrowded because people have no other option to commute. They even sit outside the toilets, there is no space to move. The government must increase the number of coaches to ease overcrowding."