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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Railway grapples with driver riddle

One word cropped up repeatedly as railway officials reconstructed the actions of the two drivers of the Uttar Banga Express that rammed the Vananchal Express from behind at Sainthia station today: “Strange”.

The questions the officials were grappling with:

• Why were the two motormen, both now dead, driving at a breakneck 80-90kmph as the train approached a station where it was to stop?

• How did they miss the signal?

• Did they miss the warning lights at the Vananchal’s rear too, or else why did they — or the Uttar Banga guard — not apply the emergency brakes?

• Why did the drivers, who died in their seats, not try to jump off the train at the last minute?

• The drivers were to all appearances sober and alert at the previous stop at Gadadharpur station, just 10km from Sainthia. What could have happened to them after that?

Some sources hinted that driver M.C. Dey and his assistant N.K. Mandal may have somehow been “incapacitated” in the 7-8 minutes between the train’s departure from Gadadharpur and the crash.

However, two points suggested the entire blame may not have been the drivers’.

One, the officials failed to explain why the interlocking system, which can divert an incoming train to a different platform if the platform it is approaching is already occupied by another train, did not come into play.

An operator mans the system’s centralised panel just outside the station, and switches it on to avert collisions, a source said.

“It appears that either the interlocking system was not activated or for some reason it did not work. The railways will have to look into that,” former railway official S.R. Thakur said.

Two, some railway officials in Delhi had initially suggested that the signal — installed 500 metres ahead of the platform — may have been “tampered with” to delay the red light coming on. Later, however, senior officials insisted that the signal was red when the Uttar Banga hurtled past it at almost three times the desired speed.

Speed puzzle

The train should not have been travelling above 30kmph since it was approaching a scheduled stop, Railway Board chairman Vivek Sahay said. “There was something definitely wrong with the driver,” he said.

Besides, Sahay said, the Uttar Banga had crossed a river bridge 1.2km before Sainthia at 90kmph although speeds over 30kmph are not allowed on the bridge.

No brake, no jump

The drivers did not apply the emergency brakes “at any stage”, Sahay said, adding this was clear from an examination of the wreckage.

Had the brakes been applied immediately after the train overshot the signal, he said, it would have stopped the train “within 300 metres”, that is, 200 metres short of a collision.

The drivers did not apply the brakes even after coming within sight of the Vananchal’s rear lights, nor did they try to leap off the train.

“Any human being would instinctively try to jump off if they see a fatal crash is inevitable,” Sahay said. “But they were in their seats.”

Sahay said his officials had established there was nothing wrong with the brakes.

He acknowledged that the Uttar Banga guard too could have applied the brakes from the rear but did not. “We will question him tomorrow. He is too traumatised today.”

Good record

“Yet,” Sahay said, “(Dey) was an experienced driver. He was 58, belonged to the ‘A’ category of drivers and his safety record was very good.”

“Besides, he had adequate rest before taking charge of the train at Malda station, five hours before the accident,” an official said.

Last stop

The train apparently hit abnormal speed only after leaving Gadadharpur. “Everything was normal at Gadadharpur when the train stopped there,” Sahay said.

Sources said Dey had a conversation with station staff and was definitely not drunk. They said they had no report of the drivers getting off at Gadadharpur to eat or drink.

“It is not possible that in the short distance between the two stations, the two got so drunk that they passed out,” an official from Delhi said.

Sahay speculated the duo “may have been unconscious or fallen asleep” and said any conclusion must wait till the post-mortem report arrived.

The viscera report will confirm if the drivers had eaten or drunk anything that could have caused them to pass out.

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