At least 23 people were killed and at least 40 injured in a major derailment when 14 coaches of the Kalinga Utkal Express bound for Haridwar in Uttarakhand went off the tracks with one of the coaches mounting on another near Khatauli in Uttar Pradesh on Saturday evening.
More casualties are feared as a number of passengers are said to have been trapped in the derailed coaches. Union Minister and Muzaffarnagar MP Sanjay Balyan, who reached the spot, claimed nearly 60 people were injured.
The state police however put the dead at 23 and injured at 40.
"Twentythree people have died, and 40 are injured," the office of the Director General of Police office said in a revised release. The earlier release it issued had put the number of injured at 400.
With nightfall adding to difficulties, the railways were engaged in a grim battle for rescuing those trapped by deploying heavy gas cutters and other equipment to break open into the coaches.
The accident occurred around 5.45 pm when 14 coaches of the Puri-Haridwar Kalinga Utkal Express bound for Haridwar derailed in Khatauli in Meerut-Saharanpur Division. The impact of the accident was so severe that one of the coaches could be seen mounted on another while another coach had crashed into the Chowdhary Tilakram Inter College along the tracks.
Railway spokesperson Anil Saxena said that 14 of the coaches had derailed, while the state police chief's press release said eight coaches had derailed.
Police and railway officials said they were keeping all options open when asked whether there could be a terror angle in the accident.
The railways and police summoned all equipment including heavy lift cranes and gas cutters to access the affected coaches and cut through them to bring passengers to safety.
The National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) also rushed forces to join the rescue operation. Its chief Sanjay Kumar said 20 bodies have been recovered so far.
A team of the ATS of the state police has been rushed to the accident site, an official told IANS. The team headed by DSP Anoop Singh will probe any terror angle into the rail accident.
Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath directed Principal Secretary, Home, Arvind Kumar and the Muzaffarnagar District Magistrate to ensure prompt rescue and relief operations at Khatauli. He also deputed two ministers - Satish Mahana and Suresh Rana - to rush to the accident site to oversee the rescue and relief operations.
He also announced an ex-gratia of Rs 2 lakh each for the dead, Rs 50,000 to the injured.
Two dozen people, many women and children have been admitted to nearby medical facilities for treatment. The train had left Puri at 9 pm on Friday night and was to terminate at Haridwar at 9 pm on Saturday night.
Railway officials said a medical train was on way and that trains on the route have been diverted through Shamli.
Additional Superintendent of Police, Muzaffarnagar, Ajay Kumar told IANS that police teams were trying to rescue as many passengers trapped in the coaches as possible.
Railways Minister Suresh Prabhu announced an ex-gratia of Rs 3.5 lakh each to the kin of those who lost their lives and Rs 50,000 each for those seriously injured. He also announced Rs 25,000 for passengers with minor injuries.
He said he was personally monitoring the situation and a probe has been ordered.
"I am personally monitoring situation. Have instructed senior officers to reach site immediately and ensure speedy rescue and relief operations," Prabhu said in series of tweets.
"Have ordered an inquiry into the unfortunate accident to ascertain the cause. Strict action will be taken against any lapse," he said.
The Minister said that medical vans have been rushed to the site. All efforts are being taken to ensure speedy relief and rescue operations, he said.
"I have instructed Chairman Railway Board, Member Traffic to oversee rescue and relief operations," he said, adding that he has also instructed the General Manager, other senior officials to ensure all possible help to the people.
The Minister said that he was in close touch with the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister and state government officials, district administration to coordinate rescue and relief operations
Adityanath said that rescue operation has been taken up on a war footing with railways and the state government working together.
President Ram Nath Kovind, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Congress President Sonia Gandhi and party Vice President Rahul Gandhi have condoled the deaths and expressed sympathies for the families of those who lost their lives.
Congress spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala took a dig at the Modi government over rail safety, saying that 259 passengers have lost their lives in 27 rail accidents in the last three years.
"When will government wake up?" he asked.