India Crash Raises Concerns of Underinvestment in Railway as Toll Hits 142

Rescue workers search for survivors at the site of a train derailment in Pukhrayan, south of Kanpur city, India November 20, 2016. REUTERS/Jitendra Prakash

By Jitendra Prakash and Rupam Jain

PUKHRAYAN, India/NEW DELHI, Nov 21 – Indian rescue workers concluded their search of the mangled carriages of a derailed train on Monday, bringing the number of passengers killed in the disaster to at least 142 and the injured to more than 200.

Sunday’s derailment in the state of Uttar Pradesh was India’s deadliest train crash since 2010 and has renewed concern about the poor safety standard of the state-run network, which is a lifeline for millions of Indians but has suffered from chronic underinvestment.

Police at the accident site said rescue teams had finished their search for bodies buried in the 14 carriages that derailed in the early hours while most of the more than 500 passengers were asleep.

“The rescue operations are over. We don’t expect to find any more bodies,” said Zaki Ahmed, police inspector general in the northern city of Kanpur, about 65 km (40 miles) from the site of the crash in Pukhrayan.

The largely colonial-era railway system, the world’s fourth largest, carries about 23 million people every day. But it is saturated and ageing badly. Average speeds top just 50 kph (30 mph) and train accidents are common.

The crash is a stark reminder of how hard it will be for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to fulfil his promise to transform the railways into a more efficient, safer network befitting India’s economic power.

Modi this year pledged record levels of investment and has announced a new high-speed line funded by Japan, but little progress has been made on upgrading tracks or installing modern signalling equipment on the main network.

He has also shied away from raising highly subsidised fares that leave the railways with next to nothing for investment – by some analyst estimates, they need 20 trillion rupees ($293.34 billion) of investment by 2020.

Modi on Sunday held a political rally about 210 km (130 miles) from the crash site in Uttar Pradesh, which heads to the polls early next year in an election his Bharatiya Janata Party is vying to win.

Politician Mayawati, one of Modi’s biggest rivals in the state, told media the government should have “invested in mending tracks instead of spending billions and trillions of rupees on bullet trains”.

Authorities are looking into the possibility a fractured track caused the train to roll off the rails on its journey between the cities of Patna and Indore.

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