On Sunday, 3 top rail officials were ordered on leave and another 3 suspended after an investigation report on the Kalinga Utkal Express crash blamed staff’s negligence for the derailment that killed at least 20 people and injured 90.
On Saturday, 14 coaches of the express train, which was on way to Haridwar from Puri went off the tracks close to Muzaffarnagar in UP, with carriages slamming into one another and crashing into a house close by.
“The derailment took place because the track on the right side had been cut by a hexa blade that the PWIs (permanent way inspectors) were using while doing maintenance work,” said a preliminary report that was submitted to the railway board on Sunday.
The probe again shine light on the poor upkeep of the creaking British-era infrastructure that is struggling to keep up with the load of many trains.
Nearly 53 percent of the 586 train accidents in the last 5 years were due to derailments, official data says.
The report said that the staff carried out the “unscheduled repair”. Some fish plates (metal or wooden strips that hold the rails together) and nuts/bolts at the track joints had not been fixed and the gap widened after 5 coaches passed by at a speed of more than 100km per hour, it said.
“As time for maintenance works has been decreasing, unscheduled track repairs or tasks being done without official permission have become a routine affair,” a ministry official said.
The action against officials came within hours of the submission of the report on the day Suresh Prabhu, rail minister said responsibility for the accident would be fixed on the strength of “prima facie” evidence.
The officers ordered to go on leave are Aditya Mittal a railway board member (engineering), RK Kulshreshta a northern railways general manager and RN Singh the Delhi divisional railway manager.
This is only the 3rd time in 70 years that action has been taken against senior officials after a train accident.
Muzaffarnagar comes under the northern railways of which Delhi is also a part while the railway board is the top body for managing and administering the world’s 4th largest rail network.
The government also transferred northern railways’ chief track engineer and suspended 3 officials — a senior divisional engineer, a junior engineer and an assistant engineer.
The Modi government, which wants to introduce high-speed trains, is under fire. The opposition has demanded the resignation of PM Modi and the rail minister for the “man-made” tragedy.
Modernisation of railways is one of the main promises of the government but investment remains a concern, with the public transporter running huge losses due to low fares and stiff competition from budget airlines.
Mohd Jamshed from the railway board said “We did a site inspection. Some track maintenance equipment used for repairs were found at the accident site (apparently left behind by workers)”.
The railway board must empower station masters to order repairs to save time as permissions take too long to come, a ministry official said. “The railways minister has delegated financial powers but he also requires to delegate administrative responsibility,” the official said.
An unverified audio clip widely shared on social media of a conversation purportedly between 2 employees also pointed to negligence.
One of the men, apparently posted near the accident site talks about “poor patrolling”. “The employees and key men deployed for patrolling were just lazing around. The flag-men were not posted at a distance of 1.2km from the maintenance site to alert the driver,” the employee, purportedly posted at Khatauli, close to the accident site can be heard saying.
An official said the ministry was verifying the authenticity of the clip.