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Train cold theory cracks

Jan. 11: The railway is blaming last night’s derailment of the Kamrup Express in Assam on “cracks in the rail weld” because of “extreme cold conditions”, but experts are refusing to buy the explanation.

Over 1,200 passengers on the Howrah-Guwahati 5959 Kamrup Express had a miraculous escape when 12 bogies jumped rails between Pathsala and Tihu stations in Barpeta district around 10.28 pm. There were no casualties because the train was running at slow speed.

This is the second mishap for the Northeast Frontier Railway in a week. A fire had broken out on the Guwahati-bound Dadar Express in Bongaigaon district on January 6.

NF Railway’s chief public relations officer Leena Sarma said today the “cracks may have developed in the rails due to extreme winter”. But she added that this was a “rare phenomenon”.

Experts, however, are not convinced. D.K. Bhattacharjee, head of the mechanical engineering department of Assam Engineering College, said he had never heard of any such accident due to cold.

“The temperature in most of the places in north India is much below that what is here. If the reason offered by the railways is to be believed, many accidents would have taken place in north India. Even Siberia has train services,” he said.

A retired government mechanical engineer also waved away the “crack theory”. “These are of fixed standard design which factors in weather conditions. They are unlikely to be affected by changes in temperature. Had it been so, we would have accidents everyday in Delhi and Kanpur. The only likely reason could be poor maintenance,” he said.

“Don’t buy any theory at face value. It should be backed by scientific evidence,” he added.

A railway engineer tried to defend the official stand, saying as rail tracks were made of Hadfield’s steel — which is brittle — they could crack in case of thermal shock (rapid variation of temperature in a short time).

However, chances of this, too, have been discounted. According to the weather office, the recorded maximum and minimum temperatures yesterday were 16.3 and 12.6 degrees Celsius, respectively.

According to the key-to-steel.com website, “austenitic manganese steel remains tough at sub-zero temperatures. The steel is apparently immune to hydrogen embrittlement. Resistance to crack propagation is high and is associated with very sluggish progressive failures. Because of this, any fatigue cracks that develop might be detected and the affected part or parts removed from service before complete failure occurs.”

The original austenitic manganese steel, containing about 1.2 per cent carbon and 12 per cent manganese, was invented in 1882 by Sir Robert Hadfield. It was unique because it combined toughness and ductility with high work-hardening capacity and, usually, good resistance to wear and tear.

High-level railway officials, including the divisional railway manager, made a spot inspection of the accident site and ordered a probe. The railways have ruled out sabotage.

Four relief trains evacuated about 700 passengers of the train. Six unaffected coaches along with the passengers were brought to Guwahati via New Bongaigaon and Goalpara town. The fifth relief train evacuated about 25 passengers who opted to stay back to watch over co-passengers and luggage.

Work to restore the tracks is on in full swing. Normal train services are likely to resume by tomorrow afternoon.

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