Recordings of purported conversations between railway officials suggest Friday’s derailment of the Puri-Haridwar Kalinga Utkal Express near Khatauli in Uttar Pradesh, in which 20 people died, could have been averted had the maintenance crew been given the 20 minutes it needed to repair the track. Instead, with heavy traffic on the line, this request was denied. FE has not been able to independently verify the authenticity of the recordings. An email sent to a railways spokesperson remained unanswered. The spokesperson, however, said “the railways has admitted that prima facie it is a case of negligence” since many high-ranking officers had been suspended and some had been sent on leave including member, engineering, of the Railway Board, Aditya Kumar Mittal.
As per the voice recordings of conversations between the Khatauli assistant station manager (ASM) and the controller (who oversees and authorises train movements), at least two requests for a 15-20 minute period were made by the permanent way inspector (PWI) to fix a fish plate. This was, however, turned down as there were too many trains lined up to cross the section. In one of the recordings just before Utkal Express was cleared for movement, the ASM could be heard saying “20 minute ka PWI maangte hain block (PWI is asking for a block of 20 minutes)”.
To which the controller says “Ab kon sa block hai (What do they need the block for).” To which the ASM replies “Pata nahi. Kehte hain koi glue joint change karne ke liye keh rahein hain. Main line, loop line sab band ho jayegi (I don’t know. They want to change a glue joint. Main line as well as loop will get closed).” The controller refuses a block saying “Abhi toh gaadiyan hain (Right now there are too many trains).” In yet another recording, the ASM again asks if a 15-minute block can be given to the PWI. To which the controller says “Block ka time hi nahi hai, bhaisaab. Gaadiyan bahut hai (There is no time to provide a block. There are too many trains).”
A block is a time frame required to carry out repair work during which a section of track needs to be clear and no train should be allowed to cross during that time. According to a railways source, issues relating to maintenance of tracks are often ignored by the operations staff in order to ensure trains run on time. “This is despite an order being issued by the board after the Kanpur and the subsequent train derailment late last year that time should be allotted on urgent basis for asset maintenance,” the source said.
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As per another railway source, who also did not want to be identified, the crack in the glue-joint fish plate was detected by the sectional PWI of Khatauli around noon on the day of derailment at the spot “km 101/3-4”. Between noon and 4.30 pm, there were allegedly two clear margins of 70 minutes each and a third margin of 45 minutes during which a block could have been provided. However, there was no demand by the engineering staff. Around 5 pm, a block requisition was made by PWI of Khatauli for a 20-minute block for glued joint changing, which was not granted. Around 5.45pm, the Utkal Express derailed. An enquiry committee has been set up to examine the causes of the accident.