An express train ploughed into a parked freight train in northern India yesterday, killing at least 40 people and reducing cars to heaps of torn and twisted metal.
The express passenger train was travelling at high speed and slammed on its brakes in an attempt to stop, but it hit the train sitting on the tracks near a railway station in Uttar Pradesh state, district magistrate Bharat Lal said.
Six of the cars on the express train derailed, with one car with unreserved seating taking the brunt of the impact and accounting for most of the 40 deaths so far counted, senior police officer Amrendra Sainger said. "It has been reduced to a mangled iron mesh," he said.
"We do not know how many people were there."
The car seats 72, but such trains in India are often filled beyond capacity.
Authorities were searching for the station master, who disappeared after the accident in Sant Kabir Nagar, about 220km southeast of the state capital, Lucknow. But authorities said it was too early to say what had gone wrong and were investigating everything from mechanical failure to human error.
Villagers were the first to reach the scene after the accident. Indian TV broadcast images of them assisting the injured amid piles of strewn luggage.
"I was working in the field when I heard the whistle of the engine, and suddenly I heard the sound of a crash. It was a terrible sound. It still reverberates in my ears," villager Ram Chander Chaudhry told news channel Samachar Plus.
"Within minutes I reached there and saw the train had been derailed."
Most of the victims were poor farm workers returning to their homes from the neighbouring state of Haryana, local police official Zameer Ahmad said.
The train departed from Haryana's Hissar town and was just 46km from its destination of Gorakhpur when the accident happened. Because of the remote location, "it was difficult to start rescue operations immediately", Ahmad said.
"By the time police and rail officials reached the spot, villagers and other passengers had moved the injured away," he said.
Rescuers worked to free people trapped under toppled cars and debris. The express train's driver died later from serious injuries, while the assistant driver was in critical condition, railway official Alok Kumar said. Trains were diverted to other tracks to avoid the wreckage.
Yesterday's crash is the latest to highlight India's ailing infrastructure, a problem that Narendra Modi, who was sworn in as the new prime minister, has vowed to make a top priority.
"My condolences to families of those who lost their lives in the Gorakhdham Express tragedy. Prayers with the injured," Modi tweeted. The Gorakhdham Express is the name of the passenger train. He has promised to build new interstate highways and a network of bullet trains, as well as addressing severe electricity shortages.
Accidents are common on India's railroad network, one of the world's largest with 20 million people riding daily on about 11,000 passenger trains.
Most accidents are blamed on poor maintenance and human error.
Earlier this month, a train crashed into a jeep at an unmanned railroad crossing in Uttar Pradesh, killing 13 members of a wedding party. Four days earlier, a passenger train derailed, killing at least 19 people just south of Mumbai.