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Utkal Express accident: Note on tracks was ‘tampered’

As per norms, if a track if called “unsafe,” even the juniormost staffer on the track (a gangman) is empowered to stop a train by raising flags and does not require a block for it.

Written by Avishek G Dastidar | New Delhi | Updated: September 20, 2017 11:20:05 am
Utkal Express, Utkal Express derailment, Railways, India train accidents, Train derailments, India news, Indian Express Utkal Express derailed on August 19, killing 20 people. (File)

The Commissioner of Railway Safety probing the derailment of the Utkal Express that killed 20 people on August 19 has put on record evidence that was allegedly tampered with, records investigated by The Indian Express reveal — evidence he was officially cautioned about. This “evidence” makes it appear that a Railway official called the tracks “unsafe” before the train arrived when instead, according to records, he apparently wrote this after the accident.

At around 5 pm, according to the CRS report, more than 45 minutes before the Puri-Haridwar Utkal Express derailed near Khatauli, local Railway official Mohanlal Meena — designated the Permanent Way Inspector (in Khatauli, there are two PWIs and a PWI In charge) — wrote a memo to Khatauli Station Master Prakash Chand.

In it, he asked for a “traffic block,” a 15-minute window during which no trains are allowed so that repair work can be done. Meena’s last line in the memo reads: Unsafe hai, block dene ki kripa karein, (the tracks are unsafe, please let us block traffic). This should have alerted the system since asking for blocks is routine and such requests are routinely rejected but using the word “unsafe” is not.

As per norms, if a track if called “unsafe,” even the juniormost staffer on the track (a gangman) is empowered to stop a train by raising flags and does not require a block for it.

But records show that no alarm bells rang — because Meena allegedly fudged his memo. A carbon copy of Meena’s memo has this line — Unsafe hai, block dene ki kripa karein — written in Meena’s handwriting in ink while the rest of the memo is in carbon imprint. Unlike what is presented as the original memo, in the carbon copy the crucial line is not in brackets.

That’s not the only discrepancy. One version of Meena’s memo has his signature dated August 20 — a day after the accident — while the carbon copy carries the sign with date August 19.

The CRS report cites Meena’s memo to show that the system was alerted. What the CRS report doesn’t say is that the very next day, August 21, officials in Delhi brought this to the notice of the CRS. “It is a case of tampering of evidence/document as brought out by on-duty station master, Khatauli. This is for information and necessary action,” said the letter from Senior Divisional Operations Manager, Delhi, to the Northern Railway safety office, which is the official facilitator for the CRS inquiry. However, the CRS report, submitted to the Railway Ministry earlier this month, makes no mention of this and puts on record this “memo” as evidence — blocking out the date of August 20.

The CRS report blames the station master, the section controller and another Permanent Way Inspector of Khatauli Pradeep Kumar for the accident. On Meena, the CRS report is silent.

PWI Pradeep Kumar has been blamed for failing to secure the track; Chand has been blamed for not stopping the train at the station “despite knowing” the track was unsafe, and the section controller has been blamed for the acident for not allowing the block. Kumar was fired by the Railways.

The Indian Express visited Khatauli to speak to the principal characters involved. Asked about the alleged tampering, Meena said: “I have nothing to say to you. The CRS has all the statements.”

Station Master Chand said that he had asked the CRS to “record my statement properly.” Significantly, the CRS report also doesn’t mention that when Operations Control Centre in Delhi denied the block, Inderjeet Singh, the PWI Incharge in Muzaffarnagar, sent an SMS to alert his bosses in the Delhi division.

One of the officers received the message as late as 5.22 pm, 24 minutes before Utkal Express was to arrive. Singh’s SMS, too, did not include the phrase “track unsafe”. It simply said “15 min block required between KAT-MSP… for changing glued joint due to plates broken”.

When contacted, CRS S K Pathak, a 1986-batch officer of Indian Railway civil engineering cadre (CRS is an independent organisation and officers posted have no ties with their parent organisation anymore) denied there were any discrepancies in his probe report. He said when the block was sought at around 5 pm, it was written that the track was unsafe. “I have documentary proof for everything I have written. I extracted the copy of the memo from the station master at the site. I printed that in the report as evidence,” he told The Indian Express. Asked why he included the tampered evidence, he said: “There is no tampered evidence.”

Asked about the letter that cautioned against the memo, he said: “We cannot go by the criminals’ narrative otherwise no institution can function. The station master is being coached by his department. If Railways starts protecting these people then what can I say, more accidents will happen.”

The Railway Board will assess the CRS report and departments concerned will furnish their comments.

The Divisional Railway Manager, Delhi, and Northern Railway General Manager who were sent on forced leave after the accident were reinstated today.

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