63 dead, 200 hurt as trains derail in India

LUCKNOW, India - Rescue teams pulled bodies and survivors Monday from the wreckage of two Indian passenger trains that derailed in separate incidents over the weekend, leaving 63 dead and 200 injured.

Nearly a dozen carriages of a packed express jumped the rails in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh on Sunday, while a second derailed as a result of a suspected bomb attack in the restive northeastern state of Assam.

In the first accident, the force of the derailment caused some carriages to mount each other and badly crushed several others, making it difficult for the emergency services to get to survivors.

"We are still searching," the army officer leading the rescue operation, Colonel A.D.S. Dhillon, told AFP by telephone Monday.

"So far we have retrieved 63 bodies from the coaches and we think more people are trapped inside," Dhillon said from the site of the accident, 150 kilometres (95 miles) south of the state capital, Lucknow.

Later Sunday, at least 100 passengers were injured - 20 of them critically - when their train derailed in the northeastern state of Assam as the result of what police believe may have been a bomb placed on the rails by separatist rebels.

The Guwahati-Puri Express was nearing Ghograpara, about 70 kilometres from Assam's main city of Guwahati, when it was apparently hit by a strong blast.

"There was a loud explosion and it was total chaos soon after," passenger Jiten Das told AFP by telephone.

"The coach in which I was travelling skidded off the track and fell in marshy land with waist-deep water. Somehow we managed to get out. I cut my head and arms and have a wound in my chest."

Several armed separatist groups are active in the region, but police said the precise cause of the explosion was not yet known.

In Uttar Pradesh, police said at least one Swedish citizen was among the dead from the earlier derailment of the Kalka Mail, which was heading from Howrah, the main station for the eastern city of Kolkata, across India to the capital New Delhi.

The Press Trust of India news agency reported the driver was among the injured and that the train, carrying about 1,000 people, was moving at near its top speed of 108 kilometres an hour when it left the tracks.

"We were sitting in our seats when suddenly everything turned upside down," a male passenger told the CNN-IBN news channel.

"When the train stopped we broke the glass windows to jump out on the track."

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who is acting railways minister, expressed "deep sorrow and shock at the loss of lives."

Anxious relatives and friends of the passengers gathered at Howrah and other stations along the line seeking information about their loved ones.

Just last Thursday, 38 people were killed in a rail crash in Uttar Pradesh when a train slammed into a bus carrying a wedding party.

India's state-run railway system - still the main form of long-distance travel despite fierce competition from new private airlines - carries 18.5 million people daily.

The worst accident in India was in 1981 when a train plunged into a river in the eastern state of Bihar, killing an estimated 800 people.

The railway is the country's largest employer with 1.4 million people on its payroll and it runs 11,000 trains a day.

Experts say the creaking system, the world's second largest under a single management, is desperately in need of new investment to improve safety and help end transportation bottlenecks that threaten the country's economic growth.

"There is a real danger that the frequency of train accidents in India might soon desensitise people as 'yet another' instance of what has become thoughtlessly, mind-numbingly commonplace," the Indian Express said in an editorial Monday.

The newspaper criticised a political tradition of successive coalition governments awarding the railway ministry portfolio as a sop to important allies.

"This practice should be ended immediately and the ministry given to a responsible individual," it said.