The International Steam Pages

Sudan Railways Accident
(Night of 5/6th September 1985)

Robert A. Davis writes:

Working under EU funding, I was acting as a consultant on manufacturing of animal-drawn farm implements in North Darfur/South Kordofan for much of 1985. The very recent accident aftermath was witnessed as I was travelling by Landrover from Kadugli to El Obeid. It had occurred in the vicinity of Sungikai, (between Er Rahad and Abu Zabad, on the line from Kosti to Nyala/Wau. After travelling along a part completed highway, it was necessary to cross the wadi (seasonal river bed).

This shows an incomplete bridge, the missing deck of which only became obvious as we ascended the ramp. Seeking a way across the wadi, where it was apparent that there had been a flash flood, a large crowd of onlookers were observed downstream several hundred metres distant. This is a downstream view of a detached train of empty famine relief boxcars. A single SR officer was in attendance with no means of recording the scene: he immediately co-opted me as the official photographer. He had been in communication with more distant stations by the trackside land-line telephone from the nearby passing loop/yard.
The eight-wheeled wagons were piled up to five high, with some almost submerged in the wadi, others just atop the embankment. My initial impressions were that part of the bridge decking had been washed away. GE Diesel Loco no. 1803 spans the wadi, with its rear end buried beneath a stack of boxcars.
Boxcars and bogies are totally entangled: in places no daylight could be seen through the accumulated wreckage. So stressed was the metal that it could be heard “singing”, and paint was still flying off, some hours after the event. The GE loco stands almost upright and blocks the wadi, where a section of bridge deck is apparently missing.
A steel framed, wooden bodied crew sleeping car lies shattered to matchwood, sandwiched between the GE loco and the capsized EE loco, which is bereft of bogies. A large gathering of local people looks down on the fallen GE loco.
A concertinaed boxcar (minus bogies) reclines part in the wadi, part on top of the EE loco. The trio of GE loco/sleeping car/EE loco, with evidence of past ravages of the wadi and railway incidents swept away.
The EE loco on the left, the GE on the right. Although minus bogies, the EE loco looks remarkably undamaged.
Looking forward from the vantage point of the EE loco, the scene unfolds: the bridge is in fact intact. The flash flood had scoured out the embankment behind the stone pitched abutment of the bridge. The leading GE loco’s approach had caused a catastrophic failure of the embankment: the loco fell vertically into the void, followed by the sleeping car which in turn was crushed by the following EE loco (which was actually without power, being towed owing to failure earlier).  More devastated rolling stock.
The crew sleeping car, believed to date from the 1930s, is unrecognisable. “Build not your railway upon the sand”
Looking back up the line towards El Obeid/Kosti. At the first telegraph pole a small culvert passes under the embankment. Looking towards Nyala, where at telegraph pole no. 4 another culvert passes under the embankment.
A relatively unscathed boxcar (minus bogies) rests contentedly. Back up the track towards El Obeid at the nearest passing loop/yard (located at 20km intervals) the balance of the boxcars have been shunted to the RHS. The rear GE loco is attached to three cabooses and a crew sleeping car.
From the Nyala side of the bridge, the EE loco lies to the left. Atop the bridge abutment on the Nyala side, with the EE loco on its side. 
The cab of the leading GE loco, showing it to be 1803. It looks relatively unscathed.
The EE loco revealed its Arabic number on enlargement of this image as 1026.. Given the size of the wadi and the span of the bridge, I think that I can be forgiven for assuming that it was a span that had been washed away, rather than a washed-out section of embankment behind the abutment.

As shown in the pictures, the scene was typical of the Developing World, with numerous spectators, a harassed official, and a solitary soldier in khaki uniform armed with a Lee-Enfield .303 rifle.

So what had happened to cause such monumental chaos?

The still highly traumatised driver of the leading GE loco had explained to the SR officer (who translated for me) that he had been proceeding from the yard (shown above) towards Nyala with a train of 22 empty boxcars used in famine relief. The actual make up of the train was as follows:

Leading GE loco No. 1803, under full power
Crew sleeping car
Disabled EE loco No. 1026 22 boxcars
Banking GE loco No.1621 0r 1631 bringing up rear.
(Note that the train was vacuum-braked).

Full power was being provided by both of the GE locos. The weather was appalling, with such heavy rain that only the rail length immediately in front could be seen. Proceeding up the embankment towards the bridge over the wadi, his loco suddenly fell vertically about 5 metres and came to an instant halt. The front windscreen fortuitously broke, water flooded in, and all the while parts of the train piled up on top of his loco. Miraculously, he (the driver) escaped through the broken windscreen virtually uninjured and somehow got out of the wadi. Inherent delays in the vacuum brake actuation along the train resulted in the rear loco continuing to push harder and harder until its crew realised that a major problem had befallen the forward part of their train, as it piled up on top of the wreckage. The leading loco’s driver’s primary concern was for the safety of his two fellow crew who had been in the sleeping car. In the darkness he found no trace of them. At first light the scale of the devastation became more apparent, and by now the driver was totally traumatised. The rapidly assembled crowd of local people had had other problems of their own to deal with during the night’s storm: a dam had burst upstream, causing a flash flood which had swept away homes and the dormitory of a local boarding school, apparently without loss of life. The wall of water had swept down the already swollen wadi, where relief culverts under the track soon became choked with debris. The scouring action of the rush of water around the abutments of the narrow bridge found a weak point on the Kosti side, and the vibrations of the approaching train on the saturated and inadequate track bed caused the sandy fill to liquefy, and the leading loco fell vertically as the rails’ fishplates failed under it. The crew sleeping car piled on top of the GE loco, immediately followed by the greater bulk of the disabled EE loco, reducing the wooden sleeping car to splinters, followed by some ten boxcars before the rear GE loco was brought to a stand. There were two fatalities from the sleeping car - one was found and buried at the yard soon after sunrise, the other was lost without trace presumed swept away.

Then what happened?

Unable to proceed further by road to El Obeid, we returned to Kadugli. I managed to have the Agfa slide film sent to UK, processed and duplicated as prints, and eventually forwarded to SR in Khartoum. 
Some months later on a subsequent visit, I was informed that the Dutch team building the new road had simply bulldozed all of the wreckage down the wadi, rebuilt the embankment, and let SR rebuild the track-bed, lay new rails and steel sleepers, and reopen the line. Flying between Khartoum, El Obeid and Nyala, I subsequently saw two instances of trains marooned between washouts. Not for nothing was 21 days allowed for passengers and freight between Nyala and Port Sudan. Even the very fastest scheduled service, the Livestock Development Corporation’s specials (which had to stop every night to feed and water the livestock destined for live export to Saudi Arabia) took 19 days. The new road was a part of a strategic initiative by President Noumeri to reduce his army’s dependence on SR for military transport westwards to Nyala, where he constantly feared invasion from Chad. The metalled road was supposedly able to act as a runway for military planes up to C-!30 (“Hercules”) size. Another of his front-line roads, running from Nyala to Zalingei, was (in the mid1980s) surely the best paved and least used road in Africa.

Relevant technical details as follows:

Sudan Railways gauge: 3 foot 6 inches (1.067m)
This line in question from Aradeiba junction to Nyala was constructed after Independence between 1956 and 1959, totalling 986km. It was reputedly built at low cost using 75lb/yard rail, and was worked by the Tablet and Token system of signalling. Much of the terrain lacked firm ground for the trackbed; pressed steel sleepers were in use at the scene of the accident, and side slopes were constructed at 1:1.5 
Engine numbers read from left to right in Arabic script..
The leading General Electric UM-22C loco, No.1803 (in English notation), of 2335bhp was built in 1976
The failed English Electric loco, no. 1026 of 1875bhp was one of five built for SR in/around 1960 by Vulcan at Newton le Willows (see their website for works photo, which is not specific as to Type no. or works number).
The rear General Electric U-15C loco, no. 1621 or 1631 (ambiguity in transliteration) of 1650bhp was built in 1975.
Total fatalities in this accident: 2, both from the front crew sleeping car. One body was recovered and buried at the passing loop/yard that morning; the other was not found, presumed swept away by the wadi.

Rob Dickinson