IMAGE: Sri Lanka collision
Gemunu Amarasinghe  /  AP
A soldier walks near the remains of a bus after an intercity passenger train collided with the vehicle at a railway crossing at Polgahawela, Sri Lanka, on Wednesday.
updated 4/27/2005 7:11:25 AM ET 2005-04-27T11:11:25

An intercity passenger train collided with a bus that tried to dash through a railroad crossing in northwestern Sri Lanka on Wednesday, killing 35 people, officials said.

The passenger bus, apparently racing another bus, slipped past a warning gate and tried to cross a railroad track at Polgahawela, a small suburban town surrounded by rice and coconut farming villages some 50 miles northeast of Colombo, the capital.

Hospital and police officials said 35 people died. Police at first had reported 50 deaths, based on reports filed by police at the scene. “Some of the unconscious people were counted as dead,” said police spokesman, Rienzie Perera, correcting the death toll.

The bus was reduced to a mangled heap of metal after it caught fire. There were opened suitcases with passengers’ clothes strewn on the track and on the sides.

Perera said 43 people were injured, 30 of them seriously. Some of the wounded were brought to National Hospital in Colombo, he said.

Dr. Ananda Goonesekara, the director of the local hospital said 35 people died. The National Hospital said nine of the wounded, including a 4-year-old girl, were in critical condition.

All the victims were aboard the bus, which was dragged by the train for about 100 yards after the collision.

Police: Buses were racing
Railway employee E.M. Jayaratna, who was on duty, said the automatic gate had closed as the train was approaching.

“There were other vehicles waiting, but this bus overtook them and came near the gate,” he said. “They thought they would manage to speed up and cross, but it did not happen.”

“Our initial investigation suggests that two buses were competing with each other to reach Colombo faster,” police spokesman Perera said.

A senior railway official said the barricade at the railroad crossing blocks only one lane — one of more than 900 such crossings in Sri Lanka. Drivers often race through the open lane to cross ahead of approaching trains, and accidents are common, though not of this magnitude.

“In this case the bus driver decided to pass using the (open) side of the crossing,” said G.R.P. Chandratilleke, the operating superintendent of the railways.

The train was traveling from the capital Colombo to the temple city of Kandy when the accident took place. The bus was on its way to Colombo from Dambulla.

Sri Lanka, an Indian Ocean island country of 19 million people, has a tiny railroad system established by British colonial rulers in 1865.

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