Despite fears that the death toll in the August 2 collision at Gaisal on India’s Northeast Frontier Railway might exceed the 300 killed at Firozabad near Agra in 1995, the official figure was set at 286 when a mountain of wreckage was finally cleared three days later. Commissioner for Railway Safety M Mani has launched a full inquiry into all aspects of rail safety, to run in parallel with his formal investigation of a disaster that shocked the world.

The broad gauge main line from Mukuria into the politically unstable province of Assam was recently doubled, and new colourlight signals were being installed. The mechanical interlocking at Kishanganj had been disconnected, and points were being hand-thrown. Somehow, the Avadh Assam Express was diverted on to the wrong track. Inexplicably, the driver was allowed to proceed for 17 km through Panjipara station before colliding head-on with the Bramaputra Mail at a closing speed of around 120 km/h. The leading coaches in both trains were badly crushed, and diesel fuel from the locomotives ignited, burning some trapped passengers to death.

India has never followed the practice common in North America or continental Europe of installing bi-directional signalling on double track. Where single-line working was necessary for engineering work, the stationmaster would issue the driver with written authority for the unsignalled move; it is claimed that no such authority was issued at Kishanganj. The collision occurred at 01.30 in heavy rain, but even so, it seems barely conceivable that neither the driver nor his assistant in the leading cab of the Avadh Assam Express noticed that they were on the right-hand track. According to the Hindustan Times, at least 14 people including signalmen saw the train running on the wrong track but did nothing to prevent the collision.

There had been terrorist activity in the area, including bombs, and the Bramaputra Mail was carrying military personnel. This has led to suggestions that sabotage and coercion of railwaymen might have been involved, but such a scenario would require the driver of the Avadh Assam Express to commit suicide. Confusion in the darkness and rain seems a more likely explanation.

More than 1000 passengers have died in train accidents on Indian Railways since 1995, and this has led to repeated calls for more investment in modern signalling. While this would be welcome, Vipin Sharma at the International Union of Railways points out that India’s current passenger fatality rate in train accidents of 0·42 per billion passenger-km is quite comparable with Western Europe, where the figure is around 0·38.