Calls for Turkish transport minister's resignation after train derailment kills 36

Friday, July 23rd 2004, 6:05 am
By: News On 6

MEKECE, Turkey (AP) _ Crews began clearing the wreckage Friday of a new express train that derailed in northwest Turkey and killed 36 people in one of the country's worst train disasters.

The crash was a major embarrassment to the government that had showcased the train as one of its greatest projects.

Engineers quickly came forward saying they had warned the government on numerous occasions that the old tracks along the Istanbul-Ankara line could not handle the new high-speed cars.

There were also calls for Transport Minister Binali Yildirim's resignation.

``Can Yildirim stay in that position after such an incident?'' wrote Yalcin Bayer, a columnist in Hurriyet newspaper.

Opposition leader Deniz Baykal called on the government to resign.

Paramilitary police on Friday detained the train's conductor and his assistant for questioning, a police official told The Associated Press on customary condition of anonymity.

At least four cars overturned Thursday evening near the small, rural village of Mekece, with most of the damage in two cars that crashed into each other. Bodies lay near the tracks as people climbed on the overturned cars looking for survivors. Darkness hampered rescue operations, with soldiers searching the wreckage and treating the injured by flashlight.

``The train was a little fast going around the curves,'' said injured passenger Namik Kemal Ozden, lying in his hospital bed with his face bandaged. ``There were vibrations. My cousin was sitting next to me, we hugged each other. The windows broke and we fell to one side. We could only understand what happened once we got out.''

It was not immediately known what caused the train to derail about halfway to its destination in the capital. But there was opposition when the line started operating June 4, with critics saying the tracks were too old. Government officials ruled out sabotage.

Experts had called on the government to modernize the rail infrastructure before allowing the trains to travel. Aydin Erel, professor of engineering at Istanbul's Yildiz Technical University, said he had warned the government as recently as July 14 that the tracks were not up to standard.

``Our infrastructure was not suitable for such speed,'' Erel said. ``Our warnings were ignored.''

The state-run rail authority rejected the criticism and insisted that the lines were appropriate.

The crash marked a setback for Turkey's efforts to modernize its outdated rail services and for the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had launched the high-speed line.

The new Istanbul to Ankara train, which cut travel time between the two cities from eight hours to five, was the first leg of government plans to renovate the antiquated rail system. The new train system was launched with a ceremony at which Erdogan wore a station master's cap, blew a whistle and then hopped on the train.

Newspapers on Friday assailed the government for ignoring the warnings.

``Serial murder,'' the daily Hurriyet called it. ``They died for the sake of a show,'' was the headline in Milliyet. ``Murder'' said Vatan newspaper.

Much of Turkey's rail system dates back to late 19th century and early 20th and few lines have undergone renovation. Past governments have concentrated on building roads, neglecting rail lines.

A group uniting transportation trade unions and engineering associations said it held the government responsible for the crash and suggested that the death toll could be higher than the one announced by the government.

``The political understanding which puts political gains before human lives still prevails in Turkey,'' Fehmi Kutan, leader of the United Transport Workers Union and spokesman for the group, said at a news conference.

There were conflicting reports of casualties, with the government crisis center, Health Ministry and Transportation Ministry earlier saying that between 128 and 139 people were killed. The ministries lowered the toll late Thursday to 36 without an official explanation.

Deputy Prime Minister Abdullatif Sener refused to explain the discrepancy, saying authorities were looking into it. He also rejected calls for the transport minister's resignation saying it was too early to reach a conclusion.

When it derailed, the train would have been traveling at a normal speed, because the tracks near Mekece were not geared to carry high-speed cars, state railway authority deputy head Ali Kemal Ergulec said.

But survivor Muhittin Anik said he went to the restroom of the train five minutes before the crash and noticed that the speed indicator showed the train to be traveling at 136 kph (85 mph).