In a fallout of two train accidents in five days, Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu on Wednesday indicated that he offered to quit and Railway Board Chairman AK Mital resigned with Air India chief Ashwani Lohani, a railway engineer, being named as his successor.
Hours after the second derailment today, Prabhu, 64, said he met Prime Minister Narendra Modi taking “full moral responsibility” for the back-to-back accidents that triggered calls for his resignation from the Congress. Prabhu said the prime minister had asked him to “wait”, suggesting he had offered to quit.
Thirteen coaches of the Kalinga Utkal Express derailed in Khatauli in Uttar Pradesh on August 19 killing 22 people and injuring 156 while 10 coaches of Kaifiyat Express train derailed in UP’s Auraiya district today after crashing into a dumper which strayed onto the tracks. Police said about 100 passengers were wounded in today’s derailment.
Prabhu met the prime minister after a meeting of the Cabinet today and left the city soon after, his staff told PTI.
“I met the Hon’ble Prime Minister @narendramodi taking full moral responsibility,” Prabhu said in a tweet. The prime minister, he added, had asked him to wait.
Union Defence and Finance minister Arun Jaitley when asked for his reaction said the prime minister will take a decision on whatever “request” the railway minister has made.
In a series of emotional tweets, Prabhu said he was “extremely pained” by the two derailments in Uttar Pradesh.
“In less than three years as Minister, I have devoted my blood and sweat for the betterment of the Railways. Under leadership of PM, tried to overcome decades of neglect through systemic reforms in all areas leading to unprecedented investment and milestones,” he said.
“New India envisioned by PM deserves a Railways which is efficient and modern. I promise that is the path, on which Rlys is progressing now. I am extremely pained by the unfortunate accidents, injuries to passengers and loss of precious lives. It has caused me deep anguish.”
Later in the day, a train collided with a lorry at an unmanned rail crossing in Villupuram, Tamil Nadu. Railway officials in Delhi described it as a “minor incident”.
“This responsibility business will not do. Either prime minister should sack the minister or he should accept his resignation,” Congress’ chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala told reporters.
Soon after Prabhu’s tweet about meeting the prime minister, the government announced the appointment of Lohani, who is Air India’s Chairman and Managing Director, as Chairman of the Railway Board, succeeding Mital.
According to sources, Mital submitted his resignation to Prabhu last evening and it was accepted today morning.
“Necessary communication in this regard has been sent to the Ministry of Railways,” said the announcement by the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet.
An officer of the railway mechanical service who had earlier served as the divisional railway manager in Delhi, Lohani was also the India Tourism Development Corporation chairman and headed the Rail Museum in the Capital.
A 1980 batch officer of the railways’ mechanical service, Lohani has the 2007 Limca National Record for the four engineering degrees which he completed between 1977-1999 from Institute of Engineers, Kolkata.
He successfully piloted the nomination of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway as a UNESCO world heritage site. He was decorated with the railway national award for outstanding performance in 1996.
He also set a Guinness World Record in 1998 for running the oldest working steam locomotive in the world.
Mohd Jamshed, Member Traffic, a 1980 batch Indian Railway Traffic Service (IRTS) officer; Ghanshyam Singh, Member, Member, Traction, a 1979 batch Indian Railway Service of Electrical Engineering (IRSEE) officer and Ravindra Gupta, Member, Rolling Stock, a 1975 batch officer of Special Class Apprentice (SCA) were believed to be the main contenders to succeed Mital.
Two days before he retired in 2016, Mital, said to be close to Prabhu, was given a two-year extension. He was scheduled to retire in 2018 and would have been the longest serving chairman of the Railway Board if he had continued.
Senior railway officials said Mital was not happy that senior officials of the ministry had to face the brunt of the fallout of the Utkal Express derailment. A day after the accident, Prabhu had sent three senior officials, including a member of the Board, on leave.
Mital, who previously headed three major railway zones – Southern Railway, South Central Railway and Central Railway as general manager — felt the action against the officials “affected the morale of the seniors”.
Ministry sources said there was “high drama” after Mital’s resignation, with board members requesting him to reconsider his decision.
They said some senior officers approached Prabhu, who said the matter no longer concerned his ministry alone.
Sources also said the prime minister had a meeting with Prabhu and senior rail officials yesterday afternoon, when he made it clear that seniors would be held responsible for such lapses.