The rail coach booked by a private party that went up in flames, leaving nine passengers dead and a few others injured in Madurai on Saturday, was inspected twice for safety aspects and cleared for operation in the last 10 days.
According to sources in the Southern Railway, the Sleeper Class coach booked online through IRCTC by the travel agency which organised the tour was subjected to inspection to ascertain safety parameters and proper functioning of amenities at Izzatnagar (North Eastern Railway) on August 16, 2023 and Mysore (South Western Railway) on August 21, 2023.
After the inspection, officials of the Mechanical department issued Brake Power Certificate each valid for five days. “The coach was due for renewal of BPC at Madurai on Sunday. In the earlier two inspections, had the coach maintenance staff noticed LPG cylinders, they would have removed them. It is possible that the agent removed the cylinders from the coach before sending them to the pit line for inspection and certification,” a senior railway official said.
The early morning fire occurred on one side of the coach parked in the Madurai station yard. A suspected cylinder blast took place when a cook or passenger on board attempted to make coffee. “The food grains, vegetables, vessels etc. found in the coach reveal that the travel agent had engaged cooks to provide food for the passengers,” the official who did not want to be quoted said.
The coach was carrying 63 persons, including the travel agent and some of his staff. “A majority of the passengers got down from the train when it arrived in Madurai. There were about 20 still in the coach either sleeping or preparing to start the day when the fire occurred. Since exits of one end was locked and there was fire too, passengers rushed towards the other exit and few managed to escape.”
Booked from Lucknow
The private party coach was booked from Lucknow on August 17, 2023 and was scheduled to proceed to Chennai by Train No 16824 Ananthapuri Express on Sunday.
Enquiries made with railway officials revealed that the travel agent had given an undertaking that he would not carry any inflammable materials in the coach.
In a note, the Southern Railway’s public relations officer said carrying inflammable articles and explosives was a punishable offence under the Railways Act, 1989. The official said the private party, despite giving an undertaking that there were no inflammable materials on board “had illegally carried gas cylinder, stove and other inflammable articles which led to the freak fire accident.”
The Southern Railway also went on record saying that “the passengers in the private party coach/individual coach have illegally smuggled gas cylinder and this has caused the fire.”
A few Travelling Ticket Examiners (TTEs) to whom The Hindu spoke on Sunday said they had no mandate to check a Full Tariff Coach or private tourist coach booked through IRCTC. “These coaches are attached as last vehicle and we don’t even come to know that they are part of the train. The loco pilot, train manager and station masters of the originating and destination stations are given advanced intimation about such movements,” a senior TTE said.
Another TTE said ticket checking teams of the Chief Commercial Manager squad used to check coaches carrying private parties to check the occupancy and other safety aspects. “But the practice was in vogue before the pandemic. During and after the pandemic there is no such inspection done. But we assume that it is a collective responsibility of the IRCTC and railway staff to ensure safety of FTR coaches,” he said.