Major train disasters: Sri Lanka, India, USSR

Rail transport is rightfully considered the safest of all. The most terrible disasters were not the fault of the railway, that is not for technical reasons or because of the human factor. Most of the victims were caused by natural or man-made disasters. Trains found themselves at their epicenter due to a tragic accident.

Queen of the Sea train disaster
Queen of the Sea train disaster

The largest disaster in the railway transport history is the one of the train line “Queen of the Sea”, which occurred in Sri Lanka due to the tsunami. This tragedy claimed the lives of over 1,700 people.

The disaster was on December 26, 2004 near the village of Peralia. As a result of the Indian Ocean earthquake, giant tsunami waves reached Sri Lanka, covering the coastal railway line and destroying an overcrowded passenger train.

Train number 50 carried out regular trips between cities in the north and south of the island. On that day, a record number of tickets were sold for it – about 1500. In addition, several hundred free riders got on the train. After all, it was a Christian Christmas and a Buddhist full moon holiday. In this regard, the locomotive was even fed more powerful than usual.

At the time of the disaster, at 9.30 am, the train stood at a redirecting traffic light, 170 meters from the seashore. None of the passengers or guides knew about what had happened two and a half hours earlier – a strong earthquake near the island of Sumatra and the tsunami it had generated.

The wave height was from 7.5 to 9 m, that is higher than the train. The wave hit the right side in the direction of travel and threw one of the carriages 10 meters from the track, but it did not overturn. The water began to rise sharply, which caused panic among the passengers. Some of them began to close the windows, while others climbed onto the roof or tried to hide behind the carriages.

The driver decided to tow the wagons, which were not damaged, to a safe place. But he didn’t have time. After 15 minutes, the second wave hit. Passing without delay along the coast, cleared by the first wave, 6-7 meters high, it hit the train with great force and tore it apart. Due to the crush, the passengers could not get out of the cars, which, whirling in a whirlwind, turned into a death trap. The wave threw 30-ton cars a hundred meters from the tracks through the jungle, and an 80-ton diesel locomotive was thrown several tens of meters away. Two carriages were washed into the ocean.

Queen of the Sea train disaster
Queen of the Sea train disaster

The rescue operation did not begin immediately due to a large-scale disaster and the destruction of access roads and lasted for several days. The exact death toll is unlikely to ever be determined. Many bodies were not identified and were buried in “mass graves”. In addition to local residents, among the victims were tourists from Great Britain, Sweden and Israel. Only 150 people survived.

Before the disaster in Sri Lanka, the greatest tragedy in rail transport was considered to be an accident in nearby India. A hurricane wind blew a train off a bridge over the Bagmati River in Bihar state. This happened on June 6, 1981. 7 carriages of the train were thrown into the water. More than 800 people became victims (according to some estimates, more than 1000), the bodies of many people were never found.

A hurricane wind blows a train off a bridge over the Bagmati River in Bihar
A hurricane wind blows a train off a bridge over the Bagmati River in Bihar

In general, India, along with African countries, is one of the leaders in the sad list of countries with the highest number of tragic train accidents.

Although terrible events at different times took place in other states, in particular, at the end of the existence of the USSR. One of the largest railway disasters in the history of mankind occurred on June 4, 1989, at the 1710th kilometer of the Trans-Siberian Railway, near the Asha station in Bashkiria. Due to the gas explosion, two passenger trains were destroyed at once. 575 people died, more than 600 were injured.

Train disaster near Asha station in Bashkiria (USSR)
Train disaster near Asha station in Bashkiria (USSR)

The explosion occurred due to a leak of a mixture of hydrocarbons from the Western Siberia – Ural – Volga region gas pipeline due to violation of the technical rules for its operation. The media write that the column of flame was visible for several hundred kilometers, and the glass in the windows was knocked out in the city 10 kilometers from the site of the tragedy.

Trains were simultaneously at the scene of the accident due to a tragic accident, as a result of being late. There were 38 wagons in total. The shock wave threw 11 cars off the rails, seven of which  were completely burned down. The remaining 27 were burned inside and out.

A year before this disaster, day after day, June 4, 1988, a tragedy occurred near Arzamas. An RDX explosion in three freight train carriages killed 91 people. The explosion destroyed 151 residential buildings, and craters up to 4 meters deep were formed in the place of the railway track.

Railway magazine “Railway Supply”

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