60 passengers lose their lives in train derailment, collision in Ghotki
More than 60 people lost their lives and many more were injured in the Ghotki train tragedy.
Ali Nawaz, a farmer, was irrigating his field near Reti station in Ghotki district during the early hours of June 7. At 3:38am, he heard a screeching sound from the nearby railway track. It was followed by a huge explosion.
He rushed towards the track and found several carriages of the north-bound Millat Express lying all over the track.
“Many villagers rushed to investigate and gathered around the train. We had just called railway officers when another train rammed into the derailed coaches,” Nawaz said. The second train was the Karachi-bound Sir Syed Express.
“The whole sky was lit with the flames rising from the rubble. The passengers, many of them injured, were crying for help. Eventually, some of them started climbing out from the bogies. Most of them were not aware of where they were or what had happened. It was a horrific experience. I will never forget that morning.”
Rescue teams soon arrived at the spot. The dead and the injured were pulled out from the wreckage. Around 100 people were taken to various hospitals in Sukkur, Mirpur Mathelo, Sadiqabad and Rahim Yar Khan.
Police, rangers and army personnel arrived in the area and took control of the rescue operation.
“A medical camp has been set up at the scene of the accident,” said Umer Tufail, the Ghotki district police officer. According to the ISPR, a relief camp was established at the site of the accident where army doctors and paramedical staff provided first aid to the injured.
The relief operation continued for 17 hours. Prime Minister Imran Khan instructed Railways Minister Azam Swati to visit the scene of incident. In a tweet, the PM said he was “shocked by the horrific train accident at Ghotki early this morning.”
He directed Swati to reach the site and ensure medical assistance to the injured and support for the families of the dead. He also ordered a comprehensive investigation into the flaws in railway safety arrangements. Swati reached Ghotki in three hours and asked for an initial report on the cause of the accident from railway officials. The initial investigation said that the incident “occurred when a welding joint of the track failed, causing the derailment of Millat Express bogies”.
According to sources in the Pakistan Railways, the initial inquiry revealed that following a fracture of the welding joint of the up track’s right side, 12 coaches of the Millat Express had derailed and fallen onto the down track. Within minutes the Karachi-bound Sir Syed Express appeared on the scene and rammed into the derailed coaches.
The engine of Sir Syed Express and four of its coaches derailed following the impact. According to the report, experts were retrieving data from the black boxes of engines on both trains. Data obtained from the black boxes would be part of the report of the federal inspector of railways.
The condition of the railway track in the area has been precarious for a while. Railways Sukkur division superintendent had warned senior railway officials earlier about the hazardous condition of the track, poor condition of the signal system and wagons. The chief engineer had responded by stating that an allocation had been made for the purpose and that work on repairing the track would be started shortly. Three days later, the accident occurred.
The fact was acknowledged by Minister Swati, “The railway track in Sukkur division has been described as extremely dangerous. Three days ago, the DS had refused to allow trains to pass through.”
Pakistan Railways Chairman Habibur Rehman Gilani also said that he knew about the poor condition of the track where the accident had occurred. “A comprehensive overhaul of the track under the ML-1 project is the only permanent solution. We cannot make a large investment besides it,” he said.
The initial inquiry report has revealed that a welding joint of the up track’s right side failed, derailing 12 coaches of the Millat Express that crashed onto the down track. Within minutes, the Karachi-bound Sir Syed Express appeared on the scene and rammed into the derailed coaches, causing devastation.
A war of words followed the accident between the government and the opposition leaders, each blaming the other for the railway’s failures.
PPP chairman, Bilawal Bhutto, demanded the resignation of the prime minister and the minister for railways. “Imran Khan used to say that if a train accident occurs, the prime minister and the railways minister are responsible for it,” he said.
Defending the government and blaming the previous governments, Minister for Information Fawad Chaudhry said the incident was a result of negligence of past governments led by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and the Pakistan Peoples Party.
Former minister for railways Khawaja Saad Rafique said that the railways had been destroyed by the incumbent government through a 65 percent reduction in the development budget. “PTI ministers, including Sheikh Rasheed and Fawad Chaudhry, do nothing except try to shift the blame onto others,” he said.
Ahsan Iqbal, a central leader of the PML-N, said “Why was the track not repaired after receiving the report on its poor condition?” He also asked why the train drivers were not directed to slow down to less than 40 kilometres per hour in the section until the track was repaired.
Responding to the criticism, Azam Swati said: “If a complete upgrade is not undertaken, more lives may be lost in future accidents. I need Rs 62 billion for a comprehensive upgrade.”
The minister said that 520 kilometres track from Kotri to Khanpur was dangerous. He said the track had not been upgraded since 1971. “It should have been upgraded 20 or 25 years ago. Some sections of the track were replaced in 2003 after 4 to 5 percent of the track was found unable to bear the load. I have inspected every inch of the track from Multan to Sukkur during the last 5 months and observed that the track in Sukkur division is dangerous,” he said.
“ML-1 can save lives and prevent frequent accidents. I have met the Chinese ambassador and requested him to start the ML-1 project. We have accepted the terms and conditions and asked China to start work on Phase-1 of the project. The improvement of track will cost billions of rupees.”
The federal minister said that the Orange Line train track was constructed at a cost of $60 million per kilometre. The total cost was $1.6 billion. “The Multan Motorway was completed at a cost of Rs 12-15 million per kilometre at a total cost of Rs 4 billion. Rs 55 billion was spent on land acquisition. Huge amounts of money were spent on other projects while the railway was ignored.”
He said that the families of those who had lost their lives would be compensated. He said Rs 1.5 million each would be paid to families of those who had lost their lives and Rs 0.3 million each to the injured.
Later, a Pakistan Railways spokesperson said that action had been taken against several officials.
“On the technical advice of Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Nisar Memon, officials Muhammad Imran (DME-II) Grade-18, Lahore; Ghulam Qadir Lakho (DEN-II) Grade 18, Sukkur; Qazi Shamsuddin Grade-16 PWI, Mirpur Mathelo; Nihal Khan Grade-17 TOA/ACO, Sukkur; Abdul Aziz AME Grade-17, Sukkur; and Ibtisamul Hassan Sub-Engineer Grade One/ TXR, Karachi have been suspended from service.”
“Besides these, three other officials have been suspended from service for negligence in connection with the derailment of the Khyber Mail near Hyderabad sometime back. They were: Shaukat Ali Sheikh, Grade-19, Deputy DS /Civil Karachi, Mujeeb-ur-Rehman Grade-16 DEN, Karachi and Masroor Anwar.”
According to reports, between 2013 and 2019, 150 people died in train incidents. Pakistan Railways data show that there were 757 train accidents between 2012 and 2017 - an average of about 125 incidents a year.
The author works for The News. He can be contacted at [email protected]