Sugauli (East Champaran), Aug. 18: An express train roaring down the tracks at 70kmph rammed into a packed auto-rickshaw that had passed through the open gates of a level crossing, killing at least 19 persons before juddering to a halt a little distance away.
The victims were returning to their village from a Janmashtami fair in Bihar’s East Champaran district.
Samastipur divisional railway manager Arun Malik confirmed 15 deaths. Two persons are said to be severely injured.
The accident occurred almost exactly a year after the Rajya Rani Express mowed down 28 passengers who had walked into its path after getting off two other trains.
A local mob had then handed out instant street justice, thrashing the train driver and his assistant mercilessly after the August 19, 2013, accident in Khagaria district. Today, people living near the crossing said the gateman, Santosh Kumar, fled immediately after the crash. The train’s driver and the guard couldn’t be found either.
Witnesses said the accident occurred around 3pm, barely 20 minutes after the Muzaffarpur-Dehra Dun Rapti Ganga Express had left Bapudham Motihari station and around the same time the victims, from Chiknauta village, were returning from the annual fair in a temple complex in nearby Semra.
Dharmendra Jha, a local resident who saw the crash, said the auto-rickshaw, packed with villagers, was crossing the tracks as the gates of the level crossing near Chhapra Bahas village had not been closed.
The Dehra Dun-bound train, speeding at around 70kmph, smashed into the three-wheeler. Such was the impact that the train dragged the auto for more than 200m before coming to a halt, Jha said.
The site of the crash is some 180km northwest of Patna and falls on the Semra-Sugauli section of East Central Railway (ECR).
Local people blamed the railway administration as the crossing is “manned”, unlike the thousands across the country that are unmanned, one of the reasons for track deaths.
Samastipur divisional railway manager Malik said the gateman had been put under suspension for alleged negligence. “Under the rules, the assistant station master of the nearest railway station informs the gateman as soon as a train leaves a nearby station. The assistant station master of Semra station had informed the gateman but he (the gateman) didn’t close the gate (less than a kilometre away from Semra station), leading to the accident,” Malik said, adding that a high-level probe had been ordered.
Another ECR official said the traffic inspector of Bapudham Motihari railway station, B.M. Tripathi, and the assistant station master of Semra station, Sunil Kumar, had also been placed under suspension.
Fearing the wrath of the local people, the entire staff of Sugauli railway station disappeared. Police reached the spot at least an hour after the accident but preferred to keep away seeing the anger of the villagers.
For hours, the train stood surrounded by a mob. The passengers had a tense wait but none were harmed.
East Champaran district magistrate Abhay Kumar Singh and superintendent of police Sudhir Kumar Singh reached the spot almost three hours after the accident and were camping near the site. “With co-operation of the local people, we are first trying to pull out the auto-rickshaw and some bodies out of the engine,” Abhay said.
The Bihar government has announced Rs 1.5 lakh for the next of kin of those who died. The railways too announced an ex gratia of Rs 2 lakh for the families of the dead, Rs 1 lakh for those seriously injured and Rs 20,000 for those who had suffered minor injuries.
Chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi said the railway administration should take steps to prevent such accidents and also urged people to be careful while crossing tracks.
The train resumed its journey around 7.30pm, over four hours after the crash.