Though short circuit is being said to be the cause of the fire, investigation has been ordered
It was a moment when many dreams turned into nightmares, quite literally, when one of the coaches of the Chennai-bound Tamil Nadu Express from New Delhi caught fire and resulted in the death of 28 passengers. The toll is set to rise further. When the train was crossing Nellore railway station, where there was no scheduled stop, an alert level crossing gateman noticed coach S 11 ablaze. Its 72 passengers, some awake, most of them asleep, sitting ducks.
The train was stopped because the gateman alerted the station master and power was cut off. But escape wasn’t easy for those trapped inside. The door was jammed and the screaming and the shouting only made the journey to death shorter. The 35-odd passengers who jumped to safety or were rescued, had burn marks to tell the tale of a morning gone terribly wrong. Twenty eight passengers were charred to death.
It isn’t clear what caused the fire. Nellore collector B Sridhar, who led the rescue efforts, hinted at a short circuit at around 4:28 am. Some others said it could have been some electrical blast. The eruption of fire near the toilet meant it was impossible to escape using that exit. Everyone rushed to the other end and the timing of the mishap only made escape difficult. “The train was moving at a speed of 110 km per hour, with the wind helping the fire to spread. The passengers who were asleep, were not able to come out immediately,” said Sridhar.
Railway officials said all trains are painted with a fire retardant but in this case, the intensity of the fire was way too much for the retardant to control. What they ensured was to prevent the spread of the fire to other coaches.
The visual that haunted most was that of a mother sitting on the window seat, tightly clutching her baby, both stuck together, charred to death. Equally tragic was the story of Venkatesh Babu and his family. Venkatesh and his 3-year-old son Harshit died, leaving behind his wife Veena and one-and-a-half-year-old Kaushik. While Veena is battling severe burn injuried in hospital, Kaushik was brought out of the train by another passenger.
The VIPs streaming to the accident site had nothing but condolences to offer. Railway minister Mukul Roy announced Rs 5 lakh ex gratia to the next of kin of those who died. Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Kiran Kumar Reddy demanded that trains should have safety audit and only those which qualify should be allowed to run—mere platitudes for waiting cameras. This is the second major train accident in Andhra Pradesh in three months. In May, Bangalore-bound Hampi Express had collided against a goods train, killing 25 passengers. In the country, nearly one hundred minor and major rail accidents have taken place in the last one year and it is a tragedy that the lives of people—over 330 deaths in 2010 and 2011—are reduced to mere statistics at the Rail Bhavan.
While it would be convenient to blame the Bihar-Bengal axis that gets to preside over the railways and indulges in populism at the cost of prudent modernisation, the fact is the government has shown no interest in ensuring the safety of its rail passengers. As a person at the Chennai railway station, who had come to receive his relatives on the train, said, “You need a lot of ‘mamta’ from the God of Death if you want to reach your destination safe and secure.”
The reference was clearly to Mamata Banerjee’s veto of the Rail budget presented by Dinesh Trivedi. Both his pro-safety reforms and his head rolled as Banerjee chose not to raise passenger fares. But Banerjee alone is not to blame. `The Indian Express’ reports that 50 per cent of the Rs 4600 crore allocated for safety works between 2003 and 2008 was not utilised, according to the CAG reports.
Nellore should ideally be a wake-up call for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to appoint a senior minister, with a proven track record for taking hard decisions, in the rail ministry. It is time, the government realised India’s rail tracks have too much blood on them.
The writer is an independent journalist based out of Hyderabad.