Sandeep Sahu

By Sandeep Sahu

The implications are scary. There was a definite message in the fact that a team of the National Investigating Agency (NIA) reached the site of the derailment of the Hirakhand Express near Kuneru station late on Saturday night that left at least 39 dead and over 50 injured even before the probe ordered by the Railway minister Suresh Prabhu and headed by Railway Safety Commissioner, South Central could begin. It opens up a whole new dimension to the question of railway safety on the one hand and terrorism/Maoism on the other.

What makes sabotage a distinct possibility is the revelation by the Railways that a goods train had passed through the same stretch less than half an hour (10.52 pm, to be precise) before the Hirakhand Express derailed at 11.15 pm. As per the protocol followed in Maoist infested areas, a Railway patrol team had apparently checked the tracks at 10.40 pm. If that indeed was the case, it is abundantly clear that whatever happened to the track happened between 10.52 pm to 11.15 pm.

Talking to a Railway engineer friend, I realized how easy it is to sabotage a railway track and cause an accident. The easiest way to do this is apparently to remove a fish plate. But since fish plates have been phased out on most tracks in the country, removing the pendral clips, which bind the track to the concrete structures that have replaced the fish plates of yore, is the next best option for a would-be saboteur. Then there is the option of slicing off a small part of the track, which can cause the train to derail. (If the engineer friend is to be believed, cutting off even an inch of the track is enough to cause derailment). Other ways of achieving the same result also available to the potential saboteur are removing the key to something called the Switch Expansion Joint (SEJ), unlocking the lock that holds two tracks that converge on one another – usually close to stations - and putting something by the side of the track that can cause the wheels to upturn. And the real frightening part is: a few minutes is all that one needs to exercise any of these options.

Also Read: ‘Taking the bull by the horns’ may be disastrous

Of course, it is entirely possible that the sabotage theory is a red herring and the derailment was actually the result of poor track maintenance. [The engineer friend, for one, was insistent that in floating the sabotage theory, Railway officials are merely trying to cover up their failure.] Though Railway officials have ruled it out, track fracture is a possibility. It can be caused either by extreme weather (intense cold or heat) or the failure to carry out timely de-stressing of the joints that hold pieces of the track together or both. But it would be foolish to dismiss it outright, especially in view of the ‘confession’ by three persons arrested by Bihar police that they had been paid by ISI to sabotage the track leading to the derailment of the Patna-Indore Express near Kanpur in November last year that left 150 people dead. Though the NIA, which is probing the sabotage angle, is yet to get any lead to back the claim of the Bihar police, it would be prudent to dig deeper and arrive at the truth.

Even if the Kanpur and Kuneru mishaps, which together killed 190 persons, are ultimately proved to be the result of poor track maintenance, it is incumbent on the Railway authorities and the Home ministry to take a long and hard look at the possibility of sabotage in future. Even if no terrorist organization or Maoist outfit has so far indulged in sabotage to cause death on a large scale (which again is uncertain in view of the Samata Express mishap), there is no harm in putting in place measures to foil any such attempt in future because extremists of all hues are searching for newer and deadlier ways of causing havoc. As they say, it is always better to be safe than be sorry.