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At least four people were killed and 22 were injured — nine of them grievously — 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 around 2am 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.
Watch: Nine coaches of Dibrugarh-Rajdhani Express derail near Chhapra, 4 dead
Seventeen miniplates, which are used to fasten the rails, were found near the site. Eyewitnesses said some 200 metres of the track were missing.
Some passengers of the Assam-bound train even said they heard a loud sound just before the derailment. But no 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 coaches got derailed at (Golden Ganj) station, about 75 kms from state capital Patna, he added.
Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan offered condolences to the victims, and said the sabotage angle should be investigated.
Ruling out the possibility of Maoists' involvement, Bihar chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi told reporters in Patna, "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."
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.
Gowda said, "It would be unwise to blame someone till the railway safety commissioner concludes his probe." The minister who inspected the site with minister of state for railways Manoj Sinha also met injured passengers at the hospital.
He, however, added, "There appears to be some mischief involved, which led to the derailment."
According to Saran superintendent of police Sudhir Kumar, the accident was caused due to "technical fault".
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.
The deceased in the Rajdhani mishap were identified as Bharti Bedi, 45, of Ferozepur, Pawan K Dhawan, 55, and his wife Neelam Dhawan, 42, of Punjab, and Shefali Dey, 65, of Pilibhit in UP.
Ten seriously wounded passengers were sent to Patna Medical College and Hospital (PMCH), while 10 others were admitted to Chapra Sadar hospital. Two others with minor injuries were released after administering first aid. Later, four more passengers were referred to PMCH.
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."
Read: No doctors in Patna hospital to attend victims
A relief train was sent from Hajipur around 8 am to send the stranded passengers to their destinations.
More than 40 express and passenger trains were cancelled and another 22 diverted or short terminated. Several long distance trains were stranded at various places on the Hajipur-Chapra rail section.
Arvind Kumar Razak, chief public relations officer (East Central Railway), said efforts were on to restore traffic at the earliest.
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.
The Bihar government too asked the Saran district magistrate and SP to conduct an inquiry and submit a report.
"Nothing was wrong when the train reached Chhapra. However, soon after it left the station, there was strong vibration followed by a loud sound. When we opened the gate, there was a cloud of dust. The bogies had derailed," said Shivam Singh, a staffer of the pantry car.
Ram Pratap Singh, who was injured in the incident, described how passengers were jolted out of their sleep by a "loud noise".
"The bogies seemed to be tumbling, which led to passengers on higher berths falling over others," he said.
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
(With agency inputs)