NEW DELHI - Two packed trains derailed while crossing a bridge hit by floods in central India, killing at least 19 people in the latest deadly disaster on the nation's crumbling rail network, officials said.
Rescuers have been searching in darkness for passengers feared trapped on the trains that were travelling in opposite directions when some of their carriages derailed in Madhya Pradesh state.
Several hundred people have been rescued after the trains derailed within minutes of each other near the town of Harda at about 11.30pm (2am Wednesday Singapore time) on Tuesday, police and other officials said.
"Nineteen people have died," Bijendra Kumar, the rail network's divisional manager, told the NDTV network.
"It (the final death toll) may increase by one or two but not by more than that I hope." Another 25 people have been injured, other rescue officials said, adding that the carriages have not fallen into the river.
One of the trains travelling from the financial city of Mumbai appeared to have been hit by a sudden surge of water on the swollen Machak river, derailing the last four to five carriages, railway ministry spokesman Anil Saxena told Indian television.
The other passenger train, travelling to Mumbai from the eastern city of Patna, was also hit by water, with the engine and the first two to three carriages derailing, he said.
"There is some suggestion of flash floods on the tracks that caved the tracks. Most of the coaches had passed but the last few carriages were derailed," Saxena said of the first train.
Monsoon rains have hit large swathes of the country in recent weeks, flooding rivers and roads and claiming some 180 lives in mainly western and eastern India.
Police and doctors have been deployed to the accident site, with television footage showing medical supplies being piled on a nearby station platform and rescuers combing through tilted carriages.
Rains hamper rescue
However reports said that some rescuers had been unable to reach the site as roads had been heavily water-logged.
O.P. Singh, head of the country's main disaster agency, said that a team of around three dozen rescuers had been dispatched with cutting equipment.
"If need be they will cut the bogeys (carriages) if people are in there," said Singh.
Police were having to reach the toppled carriages by walking along the roof of the tilted train.
"Rescue operations are in full swing. Things are under control and most of the people have been rescued," Saxena told NDTV.
But rescuers said operations were being hampered by flooding in the area and officers were working through the night mostly in darkness.
"The entire area has been reeling under heavy rainfall for the last few days. The roads are badly damaged, even the access road," Saxena said.
Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu, meanwhile, said on Twitter: "Rushing emergency medical and other relief personnel to spot, darkness, water creating hurdles but ordered all possible help. Trying our best." India's railway network, one of the world's largest, is still the main form of long-distance travel in the vast country, but it is poorly funded and deadly accidents are frequent.
In 2012, a government report said almost 15,000 people were killed every year in incidents on the rail network, describing the deaths as an annual "massacre" due mainly to poor safety standards.
In February, a passenger train derailed in southern India after a boulder fell on the tracks, killing at least 10 people.
And in August last year, an express train ploughed into a packed rickshaw in northern Bihar state, killing 20 people, some of them children.
India's government has pledged to invest $137 billion to modernise its crumbling railways, making them safer, faster and more efficient.