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Showpiece to death train: by boulders

Mumbai, June 16: Fourteen passengers died as a speeding train hit boulders and derailed today in a blow to the country’s showpiece railway route sliced through soft rocks of the Western Ghats, prompting the admission that “an engineer cannot be god”.

The accident, the second such on the Konkan Railway within a year, occurred at 6.08 am when the Mumbai-bound Matsyagandha Express from Mangalore was crossing a bridge over the Seti river in Maharashtra’s Raigad district, about 150 km from Mumbai.

Eleven coaches and the engine jumped track. The engine fell into the riverbed; two general compartments and a sleeper coach behind it hung from the bridge, while the following eight sleeper coaches derailed. More than 60 people were injured.

The accident is a severe blow to the Konkan Railway, which was built by slicing up the Ghats and connects the picturesque coasts of Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka and Kerala.

But its very attraction, the scintillating journeys through the Ghats, is also its principal source of danger. During heavy monsoon rains, the tracks are vulnerable to mudslides that often send boulders rolling down the mountainside, the cause of today’s accident as well as the one on June 22 last year in which 53 people were killed.

Managing director B. Rajaram, who visited the site, said the accident was an example of “nature humbling man”.

“For five years, we have tried to bring the best of engineering. After a special sanction last year, we put up high-strength steel netting at a distance of 8 metres above the ground. But this was not enough. We will now try to put up wires at a distance of 5 metres above the ground. We believe that if boulders are dislodged from a height below 5 metres, they will not fall on the tracks,” he said. “But what more can I do' All I can say is that an engineer cannot be god.”

Railway minister Laloo Prasad Yadav, who reached the accident site at night, said: “Prima facie, it seems that there was a landslide and boulders fell on the tracks. The driver had to break hard. Of course, there will be an investigation by the commission of safety,” he said.

The minister announced a compensation of Rs 1 lakh for relatives of the dead and Rs 5,000-15,000 to each of the injured. Maharashtra chief minister Sushil Kumar Shinde also visited the spot with Union home minister Shivraj Patil.

Officials said rescue workers struggled to remove bodies from the coaches that hung from the bridge. “It was a difficult task to remove the bodies. Some were hanging precariously out of the coach. But we managed to get them out,” senior railway official Vaishali Patange said.

Medical and rescue teams rushed the injured in pelting rain to a hospital near the crash site while some others were moved to Mumbai.

“It was god who saved us. We were supposed to travel in the same coach that fell off the tracks but it was too crowded so we went behind,” said a dazed Elvis Rebello, who was travelling with his sister. “The train jerked twice and stopped suddenly. When we got out, we saw the coaches were hanging from the bridge.”

Konkan Railway has put up the list of casualties on its website www. konkanrailway. com, which is being constantly updated. The railway has also put up emergency lines where passengers can call up for more information. The numbers are: (022) 27579938, 27579939 and 27572685.

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