Derailment at Bihta on the East Indian Railway, 17 July 1937

by Ken Staynor, August 2009

Note: Some of the stated facts in this article have proven to be incorrect. A more accurate recounting of the accident and its causes are on Ajai Banerjee's website. Mr. Staynor has since passed and cannot be contacted for a retraction or changes. The article is left here to preserve links.

Ken Staynor grew enamoured of the railways as young boy living in Dhanbad in 1932 where his step-grandfather was the yardmaster, followed by stays with his uncles who worked on the East Indian and Bengal Nagpur Railways at Asansol and other places. After much travel and involvement with railways in India he moved to the UK in 1951 after which he worked in radar and computers. He is now retired, living in Newport, South Wales, and still an avid railfan.

The derailment of the down Punjab Mail, (6 down in those days) on the East Indian Railway at about 1.20am of 17th July 1937 at Bihta, was a talking point for several railway and no-railway people alike, for a number of years. I was only nine years of age at the time, but being interested in trains and steam engines from a very young age, I used to listen to the "Accounts" and explanations offered about the accident by so many people, each one differing in a number of details, that even at my young age, I never knew which one was the factual one! For years I believed that the main cause of the accident was the XB locomotive, which I was told, was a very rough rider at high speeds. From time to time I heard it said that the Mail was not headed by a XB but, a passenger train ahead of it was, and that locomotive was to blame for the track damage which derailed the Punjab Mail.

It was in 1956 however, while talking to one of my uncles who was at the time, in the Traffic Department, Asansol Division of the EIR, and had retired to Hertfordshire in the UK, that I finally got as close to the truth as anyone could get about the cause of the accident; and even after hearing what he had to say, I was none the wiser than apparently, even the investigating team were! My uncle enthused about the accident and told me he was one of the EIR team set up to examine the likely causes of the accident. He confirmed that the train was not headed by a XB, as was generally put about, and then went on to say he had taken photographs during this inspection and disappeared for about ten minutes, returning with a photo-album full of railway photographs; Apart from being a keen photographer he was a meticulous man and went straight to the pages where he had placed the photographs.

As soon as I saw them, I was able to see that the engine was not an 4-6-2 XB (As you will see from the photographs accompanying this article) but a 4-4-2 Atlantic class AP which were often used for express duty on the EIR, NWR and BAR (EBR at the time of the accident) and were very fast running locomotives; this cleared up the point about the engine, and in a way exempted the XB for this particular accident! (Unless the XB heading the preceding train, had in fact, damaged the track; but this MAY not be the case as you read on) Having cleared up the engine problem, I asked him what caused the accident. He was unable to offer any cut and dried answer; the track was so badly damaged as a result of the accident, it could not be ruled in or out! It could have been due to damage to the "Track bedding" because the weather was very bad at the time (It was the height of the Monsoon) and there was very heavy rain which could have caused, what he referred to as "loose or subsiding bedding" and since there was so much damage due to the wreckage itself, and other contributing factors, it could not be said which one or all were to blame; In truth they never came to a really satisfactory explanation for accident.

I mentioned that I was once told the driver of the preceding train had reported a "Nudge" at the place of the disaster, when he brought his train into Patna, but nothing was done about it. His reply was that this was never authenticated. After hours of talking about his days on the EIR neither he nor I were any wiser as to what was the real cause of the accident and far as he was concerned it was an "Open Verdict." No doubt railway enthusiasts will talk about Bihta for years to come!

With regard to the speed of the train at the time of the derailment, my uncle's words were "The train had stopped at Arrah and its next stop was to have been Danapore Cantonment, but as Bihta was about ten miles from Arrah, the train had plenty of time to pick up speed and must have been doing about sixty miles per hour, as this train often did once it got going, when it went off the rails." Looking at the carnage in the photograph, I quite believe it!

Bihta Accident 2 - A general view of the carnage at Bihta, the Howrah bound Punjab Mail was close to 60 mph when it derailed. Photo provided by Ken Staynor.
Bihta Accident 5 - A view of the accident clearly showing that the capsized locomotive was a 4-4-2 Atlantic Class AP and not a 4-6-2 XB Pacific as was generally believed to have been responsible for the accident. Photo provided by Ken Staynor.