At 5.45 pm on Saturday, Muzaffarnagar Station Master Neeraj Sharma saw a line of green dots on the screen of his monitor, indicating that the track from Khatauli railway station was clear. This meant that the Kalinga Utkal Express would cross Khatauli and reach Muzaffarnagar at its scheduled time of 5:54 pm.
But minutes later, Sharma got a call informing him that the train had derailed seconds after crossing Khatauli. “If maintenance work was going on near Khatauli, a section should have been red on the screen. The driver should have either been asked to stop or pass the area slowly, depending on the work being carried out,” said Sharma.
At the Khatauli railway station, the white board on which warning notes for trains is written has been wiped clean. Two station masters said they had no information about any repair work being carried out on the railway track where 13 coaches of the Kalinga Utkal Express derailed on Saturday evening, less than 300 metres from the station.
There were no specific instructions for the train to stop or slow down, said the station masters. There was no information that the track was under repair.
However, at the spot where the train derailed in Khatauli, about 115 kilometers from Delhi, the fact that the track was being repaired was common knowledge. “The repair work has been going on for several days. There was light rain on Saturday, but the work continued. We were sitting in our courtyard when we heard a deafening sound, and saw a coach up in the air. Maybe, the track had not been repaired properly,” said Poonam Chaudhary, a resident of one of the many houses on both sides of the railway track.
Northern Railways officials admitted this by Sunday afternoon.
“It is a major coordination lapse. Our repairmen had removed a small section of the track and were in the process of replacing it when the Utkal Express came down the tracks at a speed of 100 kmph. Clamps and tools have been found near the accident site to indicate repair work was underway. The officials at Khatauli should have known. The PWI (permanent way inspector) should have informed them,” said a senior Northern Railways official at the spot, who did not want to be named.
The PWI was not available when The Indian Express visited the station on Sunday.
The Kalinga Utkal Express, which runs from Puri to Haridwar every day, stops at Meerut Cantonment station and Muzaffarnagar station for one minute each. It passes by, but does not stop at, smaller stations like Khatauli or Mansurpur (both between Meerut and Muzaffarnagar).
According to the log book available at Muzaffarnagar, the last express train that passed through Khatauli on Saturday was the Indore-Amritsar Express at 1.30 pm. The log book shows that a passenger train between Delhi and Saharanpur crossed the stretch at around 5 pm, but at a much slower speed.
“Since the express trains do not stop at Khatauli, they usually cross the stretch at a speed of around 100 kmph. The passenger trains stop at the small stations, so their speed while leaving the station is 15 kmph to 20 kmph,” said Sharma.
Some residents of Khatauli claimed that a similar accident was averted on June 12. “There was a crack on the track, which was spotted by the employee of a school located nearby. As soon as he realised that a train was approaching, he ran towards it with a red shirt, and got the train to stop. We thought they would have started repair work after that incident,” said Pradeep Dhama, a resident.
But Railways officials at Khatauli neither confirmed not denied the incident.
According to officials at Muzaffarnagar, Khatauli and Meerut, there is a standard operating procedure which has to be followed before any repair work is undertaken. D P Sharma, station supervisor at Meerut City station, said the movement of trains is stopped in case of any repair work. This has to be communicated to the different departments in writing, he said. Speed restrictions are put in place, even after the repairs, to check if everything is fine, he said.
“Since we did not get any information, it is clear that this line of communication broke down somewhere,” said Sharma.