Turkish govt under fire after high-speed train crash

Turkish authorities faced strong criticism on Friday for starting up a fast-train service on decade-old tracks, after 36 people perished in one of the country’s worst railway disasters.

One of the new fast trains, linking Istanbul to Ankara, derailed on Thursday evening near the north-western town of Pamukova, its five carriages overturning and crashing into each other.

The express link was inaugurated last month amid much fanfare despite warnings over its safety.

The crash rekindled concern over Turkey’s ageing, state-owned railway system and was an embarrassment for the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who personally inaugurated the fast-train service on June 4.

Officials put the death toll at 36 after giving contradictory figures of up to 139 dead overnight. Seventy-nine other people were injured.

“It was suddenly all dust and smoke and we overturned. It was like an earthquake,” Hatice Er, one of the passengers on the train, said from her wheelchair in Pamukova hospital.

Another survivor, Fatih Selcuk, recalled: “I only remember the cries.
It was terrible. We were stuck underneath [another carriage]. We broke the windows and got out.”

Railway authorities sought to fend off accusations of neglecting warnings over flaws in the fast-train project, but said the cause of the accident could be determined only after a technical investigation.

The press unanimously blasted the accident as a “murder”, while experts and survivors charged that the train was speeding on old and inadequate tracks.

The so-called “accelerated” train travels at speeds of up to 150kph, reducing the duration of the 567km trip from Istanbul to Ankara from eight to five hours.

“An accelerated massacre,” the Sabah daily trumpeted, while the Milliyet daily said: “They died in the name of a show-off.”

The head of the railway authority, Suleyman Karaman, ruled out the possibility of sabotage, but added that authorities were examining all possibilities.

He maintained that the train was not speeding at the time of the accident.

The express was supposed to be travelling at a speed of 75kph to 80kph at the site of the crash, railway officials said.

The official in charge of the train, Koksal Coskun, reportedly burst into tears in an interview with Radikal daily and admitted: “The speed limit in that region was 130kph and we were slightly slower.”

A railway engineer at the crash site claimed the train was running at about 140kph, while a survivor said he saw a speedometer indicating 132kph a few minutes before the crash.

A professor from Istanbul’s Yildiz Technical University, who spearheaded opposition to the upgraded train project, said it is impossible for the current tracks to bear high speeds.

“The tracks are damaged at such a speed and trains are derailed. This is a physical and technical fact,” Aydin Erel told the Aksam daily.

“You cannot operate a fast train like this ... At present the rails can hardly bear speeds of 50kph. Our infrastructure is not suitable for fast trains,” said the head of a transport workers’ union, Siddik Aksoy.

In an embarrassment for Erdogan, a wailing woman who lost her spouse in the accident yelled at the prime minister as he visited those injured in a hospital in Pamukova.

“Mr Prime Minister, please hear my voice. This train was bad! I lost my husband,” she cried as bodyguards took her away.

Using spotlights, dozens of rescue workers and locals worked through the night combing the area after removing the dead and the injured from inside the carriages.

Bulldozers and a crane were brought in to lift the toppled carriages and check for survivors or casualties as police and paramilitary troops threw up a security cordon around the area.—Sapa-AFP

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