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India's Rail Ministry Probes Sunday Train Wreck That Killed Scores


Rescue teams in India were searching into the night for survivors of the country's deadliest train accident in recent years. Fourteen carriages of an express train jumped the tracks traveling through a northern state of the country early Sunday morning. More than 130 people were killed, 200 injured, many of them seriously, and NPR's Julie McCarthy joins us from New Delhi to talk about this. Julie, good morning.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So what exactly happened here?

MCCARTHY: Well, the short answer is they're not quite sure what happened. But rail officials are saying this accident that took place in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, the train was crossing through there to Bihar, a state - a neighboring state - was likely caused by what they call rail fracture. And they speculated with winter setting in, colder air causes these rails to contract, and that produces fractures. But, you know, poor maintenance can also cause fractures, and a severe fracture can actually derail a train because the tracks start to separate. A railway manager told the local media that he had personally inspected this track a month ago. But, David, this train was also described as packed, extraordinarily so, possibly overcapacity; reportedly, 1,200 people on board. And of course the danger for that is when you're trying to extract these people from the carriages is just that much more difficult to get them out of what are these mangled hulks of metal now.

GREENE: Well, it just sounds like, listening to you there, this is a train system that it sounds like a lot of people rely on and one that doesn't sound very safe right now.

MCCARTHY: Well, you know, it is one of the largest rail networks in the world. It moves 23 million passengers a day. It is well used. But safety, you're right, is a perennial concern. And what's now emerging in this case are questions about the rolling stock, the carriages themselves. When this train was jerked, as people described it, shaking them from their sleep at 3 o'clock in the morning Sunday, the coaches not only went off the tracks, they piled up against each other. And that's why there were such a large loss of life. These are vintage 1950s cars. Now, there are more modern carriages that are explicitly designed not to pile up. And India is in the midst of switching over to those, but the pace of change has been slow. And so the bulk of the fleet is made up of these outdated coaches. Now, coincidentally, David, you know, this disaster unfolded at a time when the Indian Railways was in the middle of a drive to achieve zero accidents, something the Indians are hoping for desperately.

GREENE: The Indian Railways had actually made zero accidents a priority already before this happens.

MCCARTHY: Yes, they had. And Prime Minister Narendra Modi makes no secret that India needs massive investments to improve what is a rickety infrastructure across the board. It needs to improve airports and ports and railways. And so it earmarked $125 billion over five years to modernize Indian Railways just last year. And this rail disaster just drives home the need for that. But Modi likes these high-profile projects, like bullet trains, and critics say, hold on a minute. The money needs to go to things like better maintenance, safer carriages, improved signalling. They say that may not be glamorous, but it's what's needed.

GREENE: All right, speaking about that deadly train accident in India with NPR's Julie McCarthy. Julie, thanks.

MCCARTHY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.