THREE YEARS after the National Investigation Agency (NIA) said in an FIR that it suspected sabotage by Maoists as the reason behind the derailment of the Hirakhand Express at Kuneru in Andhra Pradesh that led to 40 deaths, the Commissioner of Railway Safety (CRS) has concluded that the accident was caused by a “fractured” part of the track.
The final probe report, prepared by CRS (South Central Circle) Ram Kripal, states that “the accident occurred due to fracture of tongue rail”.
The tongue rail — a nine-metre piece that is also called the switch rail — is linked to both rails on a track and helps a locomotive change directions. The broken piece, which was found near the accident site, was handed over by the CRS to the criminal investigation team.
The report says that while the Civil Engineering Department of the East Coast Railway was “blameworthy”, there was no Railway official or any other person either “Primary Responsible” or even “Secondary Responsible”.
The NIA, which was probing the accident from a terror angle, has not filed a chargesheet in the case. Sources said the agency’s probe has not reached any conclusion to fix culpability even though sabotage has been ruled out.
The probe report states: “However, whether the fracture occurred due to material failure/ out-lived codal life could not be conclusively established. Because of inconclusive evidence, I cannot hold any individual Railway official responsible for this derailment.”
When contacted, S K Pathak, Chief Commissioner of Railway Safety, told The Indian Express that the tongue rail was well past its assigned codal life, which is the maximum service life of any asset after which it must be replaced. “It was a 52-kg rail, which was supposed to withstand around 150 Gross Million Tonnes (GMT) of traffic. However, this piece of tongue rail had withstood 175 GMT of traffic. So that is the reason why it would have broken,” he said.
The probe report, however, states that Railway officials present did not help in relief and rescue operations. “None of the seven Railway employees who were travelling on duty pass/privilege pass reported for rescue operation. TTEs also did not participate in the rescue operations, nor did they alert any Railway employee travelling in the train to take part in rescue,” the report says.
It also notes that the Railways failed to dispatch an Accident Relief Train to the site on time.
Asked why no official has been named as responsible, Pathak said it was an institutional shortcoming, which was addressed subsequently. “It’s not any individual’s fault. We recommended that all tongue rails in Indian Railways should be replaced with the 60 kg rail variety immediately which have codal life of 200 GMT and they should be marked for replacement when they cross a threshold. Railways has done that, so that’s a positive fallout of the report,” he said.
At the time of the accident — around 11 pm on January 21, 2017, in Vizianagaram district — the train was speeding at 82 kmph from Jagdalpur to Bhubaneshwar carrying 600 passengers. Apart from the 40 killed, 67 others were injured.
This was one of six accidents in quick succession, and prompted the then Rail Minister Suresh Prabhu to write a letter to then Home Minister Rajnath Singh seeking a probe by the NIA into “possibility of criminal interference by outsiders”.
In 2017, months after taking over the probe into the derailment, the NIA had sent material recovered from the site to the Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL) in Hyderabad to detect traces of explosives on broken rail pieces, coach parts and gravel under the tracks. Nothing was found and a bomb blast was ruled out.
Following this, the agency took the help of IIT-Kanpur to conduct a simulation exercise based on circumstances and material — even this exercise did not indicate sabotage.
Earlier this year, a probe report on the derailment of the Indore-Patna Express that killed 152 people in 2016 said the reason was “welding failure” but added that the NIA was still probing the matter. It was one of the accidents that Prabhu had cited in his letter. —(With Deeptiman Tiwary)
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