21 killed, 85 injured in train tragedy

Updated July 12, 2019

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Local residents gather around the wreckage of carriages at the site where two trains collided in Rahim Yar Khan district on Thursday. — AFP
Local residents gather around the wreckage of carriages at the site where two trains collided in Rahim Yar Khan district on Thursday. — AFP

LAHORE / RAHIM YAR KHAN: Passing through a poor administrative and operational phase, the Pakistan Railways (PR) faced another tragedy on Thursday when the Quetta-bound Akbar Express crashed into the back of a goods train at Walhar railway station’s loop line, near Sadiqabad, leaving 21 passengers dead and 85 injured.

Four of the injured were reported to be in a serious condition.

An initial probe identifies the defective signal system as the main reason behind the accident, as it diverted the passenger train from the main to the loop line where the freight train was already standing.

“The defective signal system at the Walhar railway station seems to be the main cause of the accident. The system has not been properly working for the last couple of days, according to findings of the preliminary investigation,” a senior PR official told Dawn.

However, Federal Minis­ter for Railways Sheikh Rashid Ahmad said a preliminary report about the accident would be shared with the media as soon as the officials concerned fina­lised it. “I cannot tell you how this accident happened and will be in a position to tell you something after the senior officials led by the PR’s CEO brief me in this regard. They all are at the accident site to supervise the rescue and relief operation,” the minister told Dawn when contacted.

Asked why the PR continued launching new trains while ignoring the issues the railway infrastructure was facing, Mr Rashid said no one had paid heed to rehabilitation of the track during the last 10 years or so. “During the last 10 months, we have hardly become able to finalise the main line-1 (ML-1) project, the only way to get rid of the issues the PR has been facing. But, we have no funds for taking up rehabilitation at various stretches of the track,” he said.

The accident occurred at about 4:30am. Before this, a goods (parcel) train was detained at the loop line to let Akbar Express overtake it while using the main track.

“Normally, the loop line is used to keep a train (mostly a goods train) stationary for some time to make the main line clear to let a passenger train pass. In this particular case, the freight / parcel train was detained at the loop line of Walhar station at 4:30am. Akbar Express moved from Maachi Goth station at about 4:25am but surprisingly it went on the loop line at about 4:35am and rammed into the freight train,” a source in the PR said. “An express train going on a loop line without any reason reflects problems in the signal system as well as human error,” he added.

Recently, the PR has spent millions of rupees on improving / upgrading the signal system by phasing out the manual system almost completely.

As no one from the local administration and police etc, barring a few members of the PR staff at Walhar station, immediately reached the place of the incident, the local residents rushed to the spot on hearing cries of the passengers.

“Most of the passengers were sleeping. Suddenly most of them fell down on the floor of the bogies after the collision. But thank God, no one in our coach died,” an injured passenger told the media.

According to Rescue 1122 sources, 20 passengers were killed and 85 injured. But the spokesman for the Rahim Yar Khan district police chief put the number of the deceased at 21.

After the accident, rail traffic remained suspended on both up and down tracks for many hours.

Besides loss of lives, the locomotive and six coaches of Akbar Express and some wagons of the freight train were badly damaged. However, the driver and assistant drivers of the passenger train survived as they reportedly jumped out of the locomotive.

PR senior officials, Rescue 1122, police and Civil Defence teams from four tehsils of the district reached the spot. The PR immediately sent a relief train from Sukkur to Walhar railway station to recover the bodies and the injured stuck into the damaged coaches. Later, Pakistan Army teams also joined the rescue operation.

“Fifty ambulances from various areas of the district reached the site to shift the injured to the Tehsil Headquarters Hospital in Sadiqabad and Sheikh Zayed Medical College Hospital in Rahim Yar Khan. The Sadiqabad hospital received 60 injured and nine bodies,” a rescue official said.

According to Rahim Yar Khan DPO Umar Farooq Salamat, the accident happened when the signal changed on the track after which the passenger train went on the loop line where a freight train was already parked.

According to a source at the Walhar railway station, there is a computerised system of crossing (track changing lever) at most of the railway stations in the country. But the Walhar station still has a manual system.

According to the PR spokesperson, the driver of the passenger train Abdul Khaliq and his assistant Farman had been critically injured. “An information cell for the families of the deceased and the injured has been set up at Sukkur railway station with phone numbers 0719310087 and 03333993999.

All passengers of Akbar Express were sent to their destinations after its damaged coaches were replaced with new ones,” the spokesperson said.

Earlier train accidents

According to a recent report submitted by the PR authorities to the National Assembly’s standing committee, as many as 74 train accidents, including several derailments, have taken place from June 1, 2018 to June 30 this year.

The 74 accidents included 12 of serious nature and 61 of derailments. The 12 serious accidents included eight of eruption of fire in dining cars of different trains.

“Derailments and fatal accidents have become a rising trend during the last four months or so. If we include this July, the number of accidents rises to more than 80. And this includes two major accidents: the collision of Jinnah Express with a goods train near Hyderabad last month and Akbar Express’s smashing into the back of a goods train near Sadiqabad on July 11. Besides a huge loss of rail and other sort of property in derailments, as many as 25 have people have died and 85 passengers have received injuries in the train accidents,” said a PR official.

He said due to increased number of accidents, a huge number of train passengers was also suffering because of delays in train schedules almost on daily basis.

Published in Dawn, July 12th, 2019