LUCKNOW, India — An express train slammed into a parked freight train in northern India on Monday, killing at least 40 people and reducing cars to a heap of torn and twisted metal, officials said.
The Gorakhpur Express passenger train was traveling at high speed and slammed on its brakes in an attempt to stop, but plowed into the train sitting on the tracks near a railway station in Uttar Pradesh state, district magistrate Bharat Lal said.
Six of the cars on the express train derailed, with one car for unreserved general seating taking the brunt of the impact and containing most of the 40 casualties so far counted, senior police officer Amrendra Sainger said.
"It has been reduced to a mangled iron mesh," he said. "We do not know as how many people were there." While the car seats 72, such trains are often filled beyond capacity.
Villagers were the first to reach the scene after the accident about 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the nearest road. Indian TV broadcast images of them assisting the injured amid piles of strewn luggage.
"I was working in the field when I heard the whistle of the engine, and suddenly I heard the sound of crash. It was a terrible sound . it still reverberates in my ears," villager Ram Chander Chaudhry told news channel Samachar Plus. "Within minutes I reached there and saw the train has been derailed."
Most of the victims had been poor farm workers returning to their homes from the neighboring state of Haryana, local police official Zameer Ahmad said. The passenger train had left from Haryana's town of Hissar and was just 46 kilometers (29 miles) from its final destination of Gorakhpur when the accident happened.
Because of the remote location, "it was difficult to start rescue operations immediately," Ahmad said. "By the time police and rail officials reached the spot, villagers and other passengers had moved the injured away."
Authorities were searching for the station master, who disappeared after the accident in Sant Kabir Nagar, about 220 kilometers (140 miles) southeast of the state capital, Lucknow. But authorities said it was too early to say what had gone wrong, and they were investigating everything from mechanical failure to human error.
Rescuers worked to free people trapped under toppled cars and debris. The express train's driver died later Monday from serious injuries, while the assistant driver was in critical condition, railway official Alok Kumar said.
Trains were diverted to other tracks to avoid the wreckage.
Narendra Modi, who was to be sworn in later Monday as India's new prime minister, expressed condolences to the families of the dead in a message on Twitter. "Prayers with the injured," he said.
Accidents are common on India's railroad network, one of the world's largest with 20 million people riding daily on about 11,000 passenger trains. Most accidents are blamed on poor maintenance and human error.
Earlier this month, a train crashed into a jeep at an unmanned railroad crossing in Uttar Pradesh, killing 13 members of a wedding party. Four days earlier, a passenger train derailed, killing at least 19 people just south of Mumbai. Another train derailment last month left dozens injured in the northeast state of Assam.