Frequent train accidents in the past few months have once again brought to fore issues of maintenance, infrastructure up-gradation and safety in the Indian Railways.
The issue of rail safety, however, took an unexpected turn, with Uttar Pradesh Police hinting at possible role of Pakistani spy agency -- ISI -- in the Kanpur derailment incident, that took place late last year.
Experts said the possibility of sabotage in the recent accidents cannot be ruled out, but "poor infrastructure" is a "crucial factor" behind the frequent accidents.
At least 39 persons were killed and over 50 others injured when the Jagdalpur-Bhubaneswar Hirakhand Express derailed on Saturday night near Kuneru station in Vizianagaram district of Andhra Pradesh.
Initially, the railway officials gave out sabotage as the reason, since the area is a Maoist stronghold. But later, the Odisha government ruled out the possibility.
Dr P.C. Sehgal, a former railway officer, told IANS that there is a need to improve the infrastructure to contain equipment error.
"From 2001-06, the government had pumped in Rs 25,000 crore into up-gradation of rail infrastructure, such as rolling stocks and tracks, among others. There is a need to carry out similar exercise now to prevent accidents due to equipment error.
"And if there is fear of sabotage, the government should take a preventive action," Sehgal said, who is a former Managing Director of the Mumbai Rail Vikas Corporation.
Vivek Sahai, a former Chairman of the Railway Board, said comments cannot be made on technical aspects until the terror angle is ruled out by the government.
A former senior railway official, speaking on condition of anonymity, called the possibility of sabotage in Hirakhand Express tragedy "unconvincing", as the derailment occurred in the station yard where railway staff are always deputed.
"The reports of ISI role have changed the outlook toward accidents. However, we should not forget that the rail infrastructure has degenerated in the last two years.
"The core issue of transportation -- which includes maintenance of sleepers, rolling stocks and tracks -- has been ignored and emphasis has been given on public interface," said the official.
Subodh Jain, a former General Manager of the Central Railway, said that the government should adopt a new strategy and prepare an action plan accordingly in the wake of possible terror attacks on the rail network.
The Railway Ministry, meanwhile, said that an inquiry by the Commissioner of Railway Safety (CRS) has been ordered into the Hirakhand accident.
"The inquiry by the CRS will look into all possibilities -- if someone tampered with the tracks, sabotage, or a mistake by the driver," Anil Kumar Saxena, Additional Director General (Public Relations) of the Indian Railways, told IANS.
(Saurabh Katkurwar can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)