The female elephant mowed down by the train in the Madhu tea garden. Picture by Anirban Choudhury
Alipurduar, July 1: Two elephants in the Dooars were mowed down today by an empty special train that derailed as the body of one of the animals got tangled in its wheels.
An adult female elephant and a young tusker were on the tracks when the special two-compartment train for the army, going from New Jalpaiguri to New Bongaingaon in Assam, came hurtling down the tracks near Madhu Tea Estate in Kalchini around 2am.
A railway official said the stretch where the elephants were run over was not in any elephant crossing zone, where train drivers are required to whistle continuously at daytime and night.
The elephant crossing zones are marked out by signposts that mention the numbers of the pillars to tell the driver about the stretch when the train must whistle.
In addition to that, all trains running between Siliguri Junction and Alipurduar Junction — a distance of 165km — must not exceed the speed of 50kmph between dusk and dawn.
These rules were made on the basis of recommendations by a joint committee of the railway and environment and forest ministries in 2007-08, following several instances of elephant deaths on north Bengal’s railway tracks.
The stretch where the elephants were killed falls in the Siliguri-Alipurduar stretch.
Railway officials said the train was moving at less than 50kmph but no independent confirmation was available on this. Foresters said the two animals were part of a herd and the railways had been alerted about the herd’s presence near the tracks. At the time of the accident, only two elephants were seen.
According to forest department sources, this is the first incident of elephants being knocked down by trains in the Dooars this year.
With the death of the two animals today, 54 elephants have been run over by trains since 2003 when the Siliguri Junction-Alipurduar Junction stretch was converted to a broad gauge line.
“The train was passing through the Madhu tea estate in Kalchini block when the two elephants entered the tracks. The driver hardly got the time to stop the train and rammed into the animals, dragging them for 50 metres. The carcass of the sub-adult tusker got entangled in the wheels of the train, derailing the two coaches and damaging the tracks,” said a railway official.
The train, local people said, halted just a few metres ahead of a level crossing at the tea estate. The garden, which is near the Buxa Tiger Reserve, is 42km from Alipurduar.
Railway officials, including Benofis Lakra, the assistant divisional railway manager of Alipurduar, went to the spot after the accident. Sanjib Sundhrial, the field director of BTR, and other forest officers also went to the site.
The foresters said they could not understand why the gateman at the level crossing could not see the two elephants which were just 100 metres away. “If he had seen the elephants and informed the control room or the staff on the running train, the accident might have been averted,” a senior forester said.
Lakra said the train was running at a speed below 50kmph. “We have speed restriction during night hours (to avoid collisions with animals). Both the elephants were eating banana leaves beside the tracks. The driver couldn’t spot the animals as the tracks go down here. When the elephants came on the tracks, the train was close to them and the driver could not slam the brake,” said Lakra.
“A 40-metre stretch of the tracks was severely damaged because of the accident. The tracks were repaired and the train movement resumed at 2.20pm,” he added.
The railway official said four local trains had been cancelled, while eight long-distance trains had been diverted through the main route — the New Cooch Behar-Falakata-Dhupguri-Jalpaiguri Road-NJP route. It took 12 hours to normalise services.
Buxa field director Sundhrial said: “We had appraised the railways of the movement of the herd but even then the incident happened. It seems the train was not running at the stipulated speed limit (of 50kmph). We have asked for a report from the railways.”