At least four people were killed and more than a dozen were injured — some of them seriously — after the New Delhi-Dibrugarh Rajdhani Express derailed in Bihar's Saran district in the wee hours of Wednesday.
The mishap took place near Chhapra between 2am and 3am on a day Maoists called a bandh in Saran and Tirhut police ranges of northern Bihar beginning zero hour, triggering speculations about the involvement of the extremists, who have carried out attacks on trains in the past in certain belts of Bihar and West Bengal.
Some passengers of the Assam-bound train even said they heard a loud sound just before the derailment. But no immediate confirmation of a blast was available.
Twelve coaches were derailed in the incident, a railway spokesperson said.
Five coaches (B-1, B-2, B-3, B-4 and the pantry car) overturned, while seven other coaches got derailed at (Golden Ganj) station, about 75 kms from state capital Patna, he added.
Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan expressed condolences and said the sabotage angle should be investigated.
Home minister Rajnath Singh, however, said it was too early to blame the incident on Maoists.
Bihar chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi too ruled out the possibility of Maoists' involvement."There is no evidence to suggest that a blast by the Maoists caused the derailment. Had this been true, there would have been remnants of explosive on the track. But, there is none," Manjhi told reporters in Patna.
Railway minister Sadanand Gowda announced a compensation of Rs. 2 lakh each for the families of the deceased, Rs. 1 lakh each for the grievously injured passengers and 20,000 each for those with minor injuries.
"All the injured were admitted to the hospital for treatment and some of them referred to Patna Medical College and Hospital (PMCH) in Patna," saran superintendent of police Sudhir Kumar said.
"It is an accident and a result of technical fault," he added.
The railway minister hinted at the possibility of mischief but remained non-commital as to whether there was substance to such a possibility.
"Only after visiting the accident site and consulting my officers will I be able to said something definitive about the cause of the mishap", he told reporters in Patna, before leaving for Chhapra.
The accident-prone Indian rail network, one of the world's largest, is still the main form of long-distance travel in the country. It has suffered a string of mishaps of late including the blaze in the Bandra Terminus-Dehradun Express that killed at least nine people this January.
But, the railways department did not trash the sabotage theory.
"Prima facie, it appears to be a case of sabotage. There was a blast on the track, which could have caused the derailment," railway board chairman Arunendra Kumar told PTI in Delhi.
In another incident, 12 coaches of a goods train were also derailed near Motihari in East Champaran district in Bihar. No casualties were reported. Motihari is about 60 km from Saran.
"Another goods train, 60 kms away from the station, also got derailed due to a blast. Eighteen wagons got derailed in the accident," Kumar said.
Helplines have been set up to provide information to families of the victims and other passengers at Chhapra, Samastipur, Hajipur, Sonpur, Barauni, Muzaffarpur, Lucknow, Varanasi, Balia, Guwahati, Dibrugarh, Tinsukia, Mariani, Dimapur, Lumding, New Coochbehar, New Jalpaiguri and Katihar.
Reacting to the Rajdhani incident, former railway minister Lalu Prasad, who is also an ex-parliamentarian from Saran, said lapses, if any, on the part of the authorities concerned needed to be ascertained.
"It should be inquired if a pilot engine was running in front of the mishap-hit train, as is the protocol for Rajdhani trains."
Saran Lok Sabha MP Rajiv Pratap Rudy, who rushed to the spot, said something was "abnormal" about the accident.
"What has happened appears to be abnormal. But whether this incident is the outcome of sabotage or accident will be known only after a full investigation."
"The PMO and Union home minister have been informed. The railway minister is expected to reach the spot around 2 pm today (Wednesday)," Rudy said.
Four trains running on the affected route were cancelled and 18 others were re-routed.
Officials said two special trains were readied at the Sonepur railway station to move the injured and take passengers to Dibrugarh.
A Bihar government forensic team rushed to the spot to ascertain whether an explosive was used, even as the national disaster relief force (NDRF) team was present to carry out rescue operations.
The railways ordered an inquiry by the commissioner of railway safety, Eastern Circle, to ascertain the cause of derailment.
Helpline numbers: Dibrugarh: 0373-2300131, Tinsukia: 0374-2351549, Mariani: 03771-242044, Dimapur: 03862-2291732, Lumding: 03674-263366, Guwahati: 0361-2731621, New Coochbehar: 03582-224162, New Jalpaiguri: 0353-2691808, Katihar: 06452-230068, Chhapra : 06152 – 243409, 09771443941, Samastipur: 06274 – 222613, Hajipur: 06224-272230, Sonpur: 06158-221639, Barauni: 06279-265210, Mujaffarpur: 0621-2213034, Lucknow : 09794830976, Varanasi: 0542-2226778, 2224742, Balia : 05498-223024, 09794843923