Gidhni (West Midnapore), Dec. 30: Two railwaymen on night patrol saved hundreds of passengers from disaster today when they alerted authorities after spotting dozens hammering away at tracks in a Maoist zone 10 minutes before an express was to pass that way.
Their 1.15am warning prompted the authorities to stop the New Delhi-Bhubaneswar Purushottam Express at West Midnapores Gidhni station, about 10km from the damaged tracks.
In the evening, Maoists blocked tracks at an unmanned level-crossing at Bhalukkhinia between Midnapore and Godapiasal stations, leaving two trains stranded at two other stations, and derailed the engine of a goods train.
One of the stranded trains ó the Howrah-bound Rupashi Bangla Express ó is also carrying holidaymakers from Calcutta. Security forces headed to the forested area but were advancing with caution for fear of booby traps.
Referring to the pre-dawn sabotage, officials said about 400 metres of tracks had been twisted out of alignment with shovels and crowbars, the thud of sledgehammers drawing the attention of Panchu Patra and Kanai Mahato patrolling the 14km wooded stretch between Jhargram and Gidhni.
If the sabotage had not been detected, hundreds of passengers would have been killed. Never before in Bengal has such a big stretch of railway tracks been dislodged, said Kharagpur senior divisional commercial manager Manoj Kumar. The area falls in the Kharagpur division of South Eastern Railway.
Kumar said the railways had declared a Rs 5,000 reward each for the two men, part of a group assigned the job of keeping vigil every night on tracks that run through the Maoist-infested forest areas of West Midnapore, Purulia and Bankura.
It is the handiwork of Maoists. Railway police have found some electrical wires at the place which indicates there was also a plan to detonate explosives, West Midnapore police chief Manoj Verma said.
Asit Mahato, the leader of the rebel-backed Peoples Committee Against Police Atrocities, said this evening that his groups militia was responsible for both the incidents and another one in which three trucks were set on fire.
Railway minister Mamata Banerjee didnt directly blame any group for the failed bid. Dont try to give the railways a bad name just because I am the minister. It is not my paternal property. I might not be the railway minister tomorrow, she said at Howrah station.
The sabotage came three weeks after the arrest of two villagers from Maoist hotbed Lalgarh, 60km from the damaged tracks, following which the insurgents had vowed to set the jungles on fire.
A railway official said Patra and Mahato were checking the tracks when they heard shouts and thuds ahead. It was a little after 1 at night. After walking a few minutes, they saw around 150 people pounding away at the rails with sledgehammers and crowbars near Jharageria village.
The two patrolmen saw the group trying to yank off the Pandrol clips ó which hold the tracks and the sleepers together ó along a 200-metre stretch on both the up and down lines. If the rails come off the Pandrol clips, they tilt. The distance between the rails becomes uneven which could lead to derailment of trains, a railway official said.
The patrolmen alerted the station authorities at Gidhni and Jhargram over their walkie-talkies, following which all trains that were to pass that way were stopped. A special train that ferried officials to the spot got derailed, though no one was injured.
Gopal Soren, a labourer from Jharageria, said some 60 Maoists armed with guns had visited the place and neighbouring villages last night and forced nearly 300 villagers to attend a meeting.
Another villager said: We had no choice as most of them were armed with guns. We hammered out about 700 to 800 of those clips.