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Rajdhani jumps tracks, theories range from neglect to sabotage

Chhapra, June 25: The superfast Rajdhani Express bound for Dibrugarh in Assam jumped the tracks near Chhapra in north Bihar, killing at least four passengers and touching off a debate on whether the mishap was the result of Maoist sabotage or neglect of rail safety.

The accident, which has left at least 21 people injured, comes around 12 years after another Rajdhani, then on a run between Howrah and New Delhi, had jumped the tracks and careened off a bridge on a river in Rafiganj in south Bihar, about 240km from Patna. Over 130 people had died in the accident, the first major one involving the showpiece Rajdhani and for which Maoist groups later claimed responsibility.

The toll in this morning’s accident was low since the train was cruising at nearly 70kmph, having left Chhapra station — four kilometres away — at 2am and was yet to hit the 120-130kmph mark the Rajdhani usually clocks. In the Rafiganj disaster, the Rajdhani was travelling at 130kmph.

Most of the passengers were asleep when the accident took place at 2.11am. Among the coaches, B2 and B5 were the worst affected. Three bodies were extracted from B1, while a woman’s body was found in B5.

Those killed in the mishap have been identified as Bharti Bedi (45), Neelam Dhawan (42), Pawan Kumar Dhawan (55) — all from Ferozepur in Punjab — and Shefali Dey (65) of Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh. The list of injured passengers included a nine-month-old girl.

The engine and as many as 11 bogies of the Dibrugarh-bound train (No. 12236) jumped tracks between Chhapra Kacheri and Goldenganj railway stations in Saran district, around 80km northwest of Patna. The two stations are around 5km apart, while the mishap occurred 100m away from the Bishnupura railway crossing.

Fourteen of the injured, many of who have received head wounds, were referred to Patna Medical College and Hospital, while the remaining seven passengers are undergoing treatment at Chhapra sadar hospital. The passengers who escaped unscathed were accommodated on a special train for the onward journey to Dibrugarh.

The damage to the bogies could be gauged from the fact that railway tracks spread over 200m were completely uprooted. Eight of the coaches fell off the tracks completely.

Ajay Shukla, the additional general manager, East Central Railway, said a goods train had passed along the same down line about 50 minutes earlier. “But nothing happened at that time,” he said.

As during the Rafiganj mishap, a blame game has begun between the railways and the government. Rajesh Tiwary, the divisional railway manager of Sonepur, did not rule out the possibility of sabotage.

“The Maoists had given a call for a 48-hour bandh in Tirhut division (that includes Chhapra) starting Tuesday midnight in protest against the arrest of their leader, Ranjan alias Rambabu,” Tiwary said. Lending credence to the sabotage theory is the derailment of a goods train 90km away in East Champaran, with the driver reporting an explosion on the tracks.

Tiwary added that the rail fastening clips (used to attach rails to railway sleepers) were found open at 25 points, hinting at the involvement of Maoists.

He ruled out poor maintenance of the railway tracks. “During inclement weather, maintenance of tracks is carried out twice a day. In normal circumstances, the tracks are maintained on a day-to-day basis,” he said.

The chief commissioner of safety (railways) would conduct a probe into the mishap.

Railway minister Sadananda Gowda, who inspected the accident spot in the afternoon, said the sabotage angle and its denial would both be considered during investigation. Gowda announced an ex-gratia of Rs 2 lakh for the family of those killed, Rs 1 lakh for the grievously injured passengers and Rs 20,000 for those with minor injuries.

Union home minister Rajnath Singh said it was too early to blame the Maoists. Bihar chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi, who announced an ex-gratia of Rs 50,000 for the next of kin of those killed, said: “Prima facie, it does not appear to be the handiwork of Maoists.”

Manjhi wondered why a pilot engine was not run ahead of the Rajdhani Express as is the practice in Maoist-hit regions. Sources said a pilot engine was run from Hajipur to Muzaffarpur. But Chhapra was left out because it was considered a “non-Maoist area”.