| The charred bogies of Bagh Express at Siwan railway station on Thursday. Picture by Abhishek Kumar n See P9 |
Patna, Sept. 27: The crossing where eight students lost their lives after an express train rammed into their bus yesterday is an example of what successive railway ministers from the state could have done but turned a blind eye to.
The century-old Chap Dhala — known as special gate No 90 — on the Chhapra-Siwan-Gorakhpur section of North Eastern Railway is barely 25km away from Phulwaria, the birthplace of Lalu Prasad, who, as the country’s railway minister between 2004 and 2009, was credited with turning around the fortunes of the utility.
But the gate, which remains one of the busiest crossings on National Highway 85, has virtually stayed in the condition in which the British built it in the early 20th century. A demand to build a flyover to ensure safe road traffic has gone unheeded for decades in spite of Bihar’s famed troika heading the railway ministry at different times.
The manned crossing, just outside Siwan town, turned into a death zone for the eight students of Marble Engineering College when the Kathgodam-bound Bagh Express from Howrah rammed into their bus which had gone through the open gates, which should have been closed, and on to the tracks. The speeding train struck the vehicle and then pushed it forward for about 500 metres before coming to a halt around 2.45pm on Wednesday.
The railways today owned up responsibility for the accident. “The accident which took place on Wednesday was a sad incident and the railways is taking responsibility,” minister of state for railways K.H. Muniyappa said in Patna.
Muniyappa, who had visited the accident site between 3am and 4am, also went to PMCH where some of the injured students are undergoing treatment.
“It was unfortunate. The accident had taken place at a manned railway crossing,” he said, adding that a high-level probe had been ordered.
A senior railway official said that as with several such similar accidents in the past, “small fry” like the gateman or the train driver would be blamed for the accident.
“The heads of some signalmen or small-time railway employees might roll. But the fact remains that Bihar got many powerful railway ministers — Lalu Prasad, Nitish Kumar and Ram Vilas Paswan. Few of them thought of building flyovers on gate number 90 and 13 other manned crossings on the Chhapra-Siwan section,” the official said, requesting anonymity.
Muniyappa’s claim today that “there would be no unmanned railway crossings (there are some 14,000 of them across India) in the country by 2015-16” rings hollow given the fate of the Chap Dhala.
Railway officials and local residents squarely laid the blame at the doorstep of Lalu Prasad, who hails from the region. “He (Lalu) belongs to Gopalganj. He represents the Saran (Chhapra) Lok Sabha seat. More than anyone else, he has been commuting through the Chap Dhala, the gate one has to cross to reach Chhapra from Gopalganj and vice-versa. Why did the ‘turnaround man’ ignore the crucial crossing?” asked Rajiv Pratap Rudy, the BJP spokesman. Rudy belongs to Chhapra and lost to the RJD leader in the 2009 elections from Saran.
Lalu Prasad, who succeeded arch-rival Nitish Kumar as the railway minister in 2004, lavished largesse on his and his wife’s native place and Chhapra during his stint at the helm. The then state JD(U) chief, Lallan Singh, had famously described Lalu Prasad as a “modern day” Shah Jehan when he got a spanking railway halt built at Selarkala — Rabri’s village — in 2008.
“The railway track will be remembered more as the railway minister’s version of the Taj Mahal than being a facility for the use of common commuters,” Lallan had said. He got a decent railway station built at his native village Phulwaria. The Telegraph had found villagers tying their cattle and stacking fodder under the station shed when it visited the place during the 2010 Assembly elections.
Lalu Prasad also got a Rs 900-crore wagon wheel factory sanctioned at Marhaura (Chhapra). The work on the project is progressing at snail’s pace after Lalu lost the railway to the Trinamul Congress in 2009. “But it will become a great asset on its completion for the people of his (Lalu’s) constituency,” said a Saran villager. He converted Chhapra junction into in a “state-of-the-art” railway station — it looks far better in comparison to Sonepur and Siwan railway stations.
Paswan and Nitish did not fare any better. Paswan was instrumental in making Hajipur the headquarters of East Central Railway in 1996. Hajipur, in north Bihar’s Vaishli district, is next to Chhapra district in the east. But he did little to build flyovers or add to the safety and security of as many as 14 railway crossings on the Hajipur-Sonepur-Chhapra-Siwan route.
If Lalu got the sobriquet of the “turnaround man”, Nitish, an engineer, claimed to have carried out the “biggest exercise” in the arena of railway safety in its history. “But his (Nitish’s) safety measures are hardly visible when it comes to the 14 manned railway crossings on the Chhapra-Siwan rail route,” said Yashwant Singh, a BJP leader from Chhapra.