NEVER BEFORE have so many people perished in an accident on a railway as on December 26 2004. We will never know how many died because of the Indian Ocean tsunami, nor is it likely that we shall learn how many passengers lost their lives on Sri Lanka Railways’ Train 50.

The bitter irony of the train’s name, Samudradevi, which translates as Queen of the Sea, did not escape the media reporting on the tragedy. The train, formed of eight coaches hauled by a Class M2 diesel loco, had left Colombo Fort that morning two minutes late at 07.12, bound for Galle, 116 km to the south, where it was due at 10.15. It was a Buddhist holiday, and the train was crammed with people, many of them clinging to the outside of the second and third class coaches. Estimates put the number of passengers at 1200 to 1700.

Reports suggest that at around 09.20 near Hikkaduwa, about 20 km from Galle, the train had halted at a point where wildly gesticulating people had run towards it. The line follows Sri Lanka’s western coastline, and at that point the track was around 150 to 200m from the shore. Moments later, the tidal wave smashed into the train, hurling it off the track and overturning the coaches. A second wave is reported to have completed the destruction a few seconds later, flinging some coaches up to 100m from the track. Miraculously, some passengers survived, with one estimate putting the number of those who had escaped alive at around 200.

Sri Lanka’s transport ministry announced last month that reconstruction of the track between Kalutara and Alutgama had been completed; the aim is to have the whole route from Colombo to Galle and Matara rebuilt by February 20. Several other railways have offered help or technical assistance.