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Negligence blamed for MP train tragedy

120 killed, 400 injured in accident

Syed Firdaus Ashraf in Bombay and Tara Shankar Sahay in Delhi

Railways Minister Ram Vilas Paswan says Sunday's train tragedy, which killed at least 120 people and injured 400 others in Madhya Pradesh, could have been averted had the driver received timely information about maintenance work on the tracks. Rail Bhavan officials in Delhi, however, do not rule out the involvement of "terrorists" in the incident.

One hundred and twenty bodies have reportedly been recovered so far from the site of the tragedy, the banks of the Hansdeo river, near Champa in Bilaspur district. The Railways, however, put the toll at 77 dead, 234 injured.

An eyewitness told Rediff On The NeT that M Humayun, the driver of the 8033 Ahmedabad-Howrah Express, blamed local railway authorities for not informing him about repairs being conducted on the bridge from where the train plunged to its doom.

The tragedy occurred around 1730 hours between the Champa and Nila stations. As Humayun braked, seven coaches of the train derailed. Within minutes five bogies had slipped off railway bridge number 46 over the Hansdeo river. The coaches fell onto the rocky basin and on the road under the bridge. One bogie was totally crushed when another bogie hurtled into it. The sixth coach hung precariously from the bridge.

Paswan, who visited the accident site along with MP Chief Minister Digvijay Singh, said maintenance on the bridge was to be carried out only till 1700 hours. However, this guideline was not followed. Humayun applied the emergency brakes after seeing a red flag just 100 metres from the bridge. This, the minister said, led to the accident.

Humayun, who survived the tragedy and is being treated for his injuries, said local railway authorities had not informed him about repairs being conducted on the bridge. Shaukat Baig, editor of a local newspaper Aggradoot, told Rediff On The NeT that the driver had also complained to railway staff about sparks being generated in the engine at Bilaspur station. But the railway officials, Baig said, did not take the driver's complaint seriously.

Relief operations were hampered by the absence of welding equipment to cut open the bogies and rescue the injured. Work was also affected because there was no crane to lift the bogie atop another coach. The crane, which has been despatched from the steel city of Bhilai, is expected to reach the accident site shortly. Bilaspur railway division's traffic manager Bhanushali said the crushed bogie will be cut open carefully to avoid any injury to passengers still alive.

Ram Babu, a correspondent for the Hindi newspaper, Dainik Bhaskar, told Rediff On The NeT, "I was there till 2 am and I counted 102 bodies lying near the scene of the disaster."

The injured have been shifted to the Janjir government hospital, Champa Mission hospital, NTPC hospital and Bilaspur railway hospital. Says Ram Babu, "Rescue work is on in full swing. Local residents have come forward to help the police and railway workers." More than a thousand railway employees and 24 officers are engaged in the operation. "Since the accident occurred near the town, many people rushed to help. Had it occurred near a village, there would have been great difficulties," Baig said.

Medical personnel from companies in the area -- Balco, the National Thermal Power Corporation and Raymond -- helped in the rescue operations. Local hospitals are unable to cope with the high number of injured, Baig said, adding that many of the wounded are lying on the ground because there are not enough beds to accommodate them. Railways officials at the site said the condition of many of the injured had stabilised and they hoped there would be no more deaths.

The railway authorities have set up a control room at the Bilaspur and Champa railway stations. The telephone numbers are 07752-22793, 07752-22427 and 07819-44002.

Railway officials at Rail Bhavan in Delhi, who spoke on condition of anonymity, pointed out that the prima facie cause of the accident as reported by the divisional manager, Bilaspur, was 'discontinuity in track.' Discontinuity in track, they said, meant there was a sizeable gap in the track as the result of which the train derailed.

The officials pointed out that fishplates were not found on this particular railway line; they were 'permanently welded' because of the heavy movement of freight trains. At the accident site, BJP MP Manharlal Pandey and state Urban Welfare Minister Ashok Rao alleged that the accident had occurred due to lack of maintenance of the Champa-Bilaspur-Raipur and the Katni-Bilaspur-Raipur routes which had heavy traffic.

The sizeable gap in the track on the Champa-Bilaspur section, the officials in Delhi, felt, gave ample reason to suspect that the gap had been caused by sabotage. Asked whom they suspected, the officials indicated that ''tribal malcontents'' in the neighbouring Chattisgarh region may have been involved. Some of them had apparently been chased away recently by securitymen while trying to steal railway property.

Paswan, however, dismissed the 'terrorist' theory floated by his officials. The minister said the inspector in charge should have posted a red flag at a distance of 1,500 feet from the maintenance site. In this case, the flag was put up only at a distance of 120 feet.

Two railway employees involved in the repairs have been arrested; the inspector in charge is missing. Confronted by restive crowds at the accident site and outside the local hospital, Paswan said departmental and police action will be initiated against those responsible for the mishap.

In an attempt to ward off criticism about deteriorating standards of rail safety, the railway ministry released statistics on Monday indicating that the overall standards had improved during the last decade. As against 538 derailments in 1986-87, the ministry pointed out that 236 such incidents had occurred in 1996-97. Similarly, while there were 13 fires aboard trains during 1986-87, there were only four such cases ten years later.

Such cold statistics provide little relief to Humayun, who is in a state of shock at a Champa hospital, or to the family of his mate from Chakradharpur in Bihar, Assistant Guard H P Sarkar, who died in the accident.

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