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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Faceless, nameless and dead by the dozen in a train’s cheapest cars

The train disaster site last Sunday in the Indian state of Odisha.

By Sameer Yasir, Mujib Mashal and Hari Kumar

They cram themselves every day by the millions onto India’s overtaxed trains, chasing a shred of economic opportunity across the vastness of the world’s most populous nation.

Tickets costing about $5 — nearly a day’s wage — are all they can afford. For that, they stand shoulder to shoulder over long stretches in the middle of so-called general category coaches, far removed from the air-conditioned cars that lie beyond the pantry where workers prepare the rice, roti and chai for the journey.

It was these packed general coaches, right behind the engine of the Coromandel Express, that became a scene of unthinkable carnage just after sunset June 2 when the train smashed into a parked freight train at 80 mph in eastern India.

Almost all of the 288 dead were in those three cars at the front of the train — a fact, confirmed by officials, that has gone almost unnoticed in India. Unlike the 1,200 people in reserved seats, those in the general coaches were officially nameless; the rail service had no record of their identities. Their names and other details emerged only when they were taken to hospitals, or when loved ones traveling hundreds of miles identified their bodies in a morgue.

In the government’s initial reports on the crash, India’s worst train disaster in decades, its passenger count included only those in reserved seats, almost as if the hundreds in the general coaches did not exist.

“They were all people like me, poor,” said Rahul Kumar, a 28-year-old carpenter who was in one of the Coromandel general coaches, traveling to the southern city of Chennai. “Daily wage workers, laborers and people who can’t afford a ticket in the next compartment.”

The railway calamity has once again highlighted how unevenly the burden of India’s inadequate infrastructure falls on the poor.

With train routes stretching about 40,000 miles, India has one of the world’s largest and oldest networks — and perhaps the most overburdened.

It is an affordable lifeline for the tens of millions of young people who must uproot themselves to scrape out a living. Of the 20 million daily passengers, six out of seven hold unreserved tickets, according to Indian Railways, particularly on suburban trains: streaming in and out of the crowded cars as the trains make their stops in small towns and cities.

The three crushed general coaches of the Coromandel Express held about 300 people in all, according to a senior Indian official. That figure matches the cars’ official capacity; accounts from inside the train indicate that the number could be significantly higher. Railway officials have said that only two of the dead identified so far came from the reserved coaches.

While the passenger load in this country of 1.4 billion people has increased more than threefold over the past 50 years, the railway network’s capacity, in terms of mileage of track, has expanded only about 40%. The network transports about 8 billion passengers a year — roughly double what China’s network transports on a larger, and much newer, network.

The biggest impediment to improving safety and performance on the Indian network is dangerous levels of congestion, said Alok Kumar Verma, a retired chief engineer of India’s North East Frontier Railway. Indian Railways data shows that about 6,000 miles of its central and most important “trunk routes” are operating at 125% capacity, Verma said.

That puts strain not only on the tracks, but also on the staff working on those tracks, and does not allow sufficient time for maintenance.

Indian officials acknowledge that railway upgrades and expansion have long lagged behind investment in roads. But annual spending on India’s railway system, they say, has increased eightfold compared with about a decade ago. Tracks are being rebuilt and added at a much faster rate, and safety technology is being introduced.

The overall number of major rail accidents — such as collisions, derailments and fires — has fallen by about two-thirds in the past decade, and casualties from such events have dwindled to double and single digits in recent years, official data shows.

Still, there are nearly 20,000 scattered rail-related deaths each year, many from things like falling from an overcrowded car or being struck by a train.

The hundreds of people in hospitals and the bodies scattered across morgues in the days after the Coromandel crash spoke to the section of India’s population that depends on the railway.

The lucky ones who survived had to pick themselves up and carry on with their search for a living — or return home, broken. For most, it was inconceivable that a loved one could afford to travel hundreds of miles to offer help. They could count one thing in their good fortune: The cyclone-prone state of Odisha, the site of the crash, has a well-oiled disaster relief system that rushed to the rescue and saved lives.

For the unfortunate, their search for better lives ended here, in transit.

Some of the dead were identified in the days that followed — by injured friends who left their hospital beds to search in the morgues; by relatives who traveled hundreds of miles on government-organized buses and trains to claim the deceased; or through pictures of their disfigured faces on government websites.

Others, nearly 100 in all, remain in the morgues — unidentified and unclaimed.

Kumar, the carpenter, said his family had learned he was alive only three days after the accident, because he had lost his phone. After an initial round of surgery, he returned to his village in the northern state of Bihar in an ambulance provided by a Sikh charity.

He has used the Coromandel Express frequently for the past five years, after he and his brother expanded their carpentry work to Chennai, the southern city.

Income from their furniture repair shop in Bihar was not meeting the needs of their family of eight. After Kumar’s brother Nitesh went to Chennai for work, where he could earn more, Kumar started spending time there also — for short-term gigs or to buy new tools and return to Bihar.

On June 2, Kumar reached Kolkata early in the morning on an overnight train from Bihar and waited about 10 hours in the heat until the Coromandel Express was ready to depart. The train was packed, with many passengers standing — holding their bags in one hand, clutching a cabin chain with the other for support. Some sat on the floor; the exit doors of the coach were completely blocked.

Kumar managed to get a seat by being among the first in the swarm. What saved him, he said, was a chance happening: A family of three sitting next to him asked if he would be willing to swap his seat with one being used by a female relative in the back of the car.

“When I regained consciousness, half of the compartment was hanging in the air, the other half was gone,” he said. “While crawling toward the gate, I saw a red head cover of the woman whom I had swapped the seat with. They were all lying dead.”

The daily struggles of India’s poor go largely unnoticed. For many on the Coromandel, attention fell on them only in disaster, as workers cut through the jumbled coaches to drag out the bodies, watched by cameras and crowds of onlookers.

“It doesn’t matter if we die at home or in a train accident — we are nobody,” said Madhu Sudhan Haldar, 24, one of the survivors from the general coaches, who essentially grew up on construction sites. “After a few days, everyone will forget so many people died.”

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