The action against the eight officers came hours after Member (Traffic) of the Railway Board, Mohd Jamshed, indicated that negligence appeared to have caused the derailment in which 22 people were killed and 156 injured, 26 of them critically.
Member (Engineer) in the Railway Board, Aditya Kumar Mittal, Northern Railway General Manager R K Kulshrestha and Divisional Railway Manager (Delhi) R N Singh were sent on leave, said a Railway Ministry statement.
Mittal, a secretary level officer, is the senior-most functionary to be sent on leave in the wake of the accident, said a Railway official, describing it as an "unprecedented move". Officials are usually sent on leave till the time the probe is over and the responsibility fixed.
Kulshrestha and RN Singh had visited the accident site on Sunday night and were part of the first central team which inspected the damaged track.
RK Verma, Senior Divisional Engineer, Delhi division, Rohit Kumar, Assistant Engineer (Meerut), Inder Jeet Singh, Senior Section Engineer (Muzzafarnagar) and Pradeep Kumar, Junior Engineer (Khatauli) have all been suspended, the statement said.
Chief Track Engineer, Alok Ansal, has been transferred, it added.
"This is the strictest possible action that could have been taken and the intention was to send out a message that officers at each level have to take responsibility. It is a clear case of negligence," a senior Railway Ministry official said while refusing to be identified.
The action was taken on the basis of an internal report which is learnt to have said that the rail track was found cut by a hacksaw and as a result, there was a gap in the tracks, according to officials in the know.
The report also said that the fish plate and the nut bolt on a section of the tracks were not fixed properly, they said.
The train, which was on its way from Puri in Odisha to Haridwar in Uttarakhand, had 23 coaches, of which 13 derailed at Khatauli in UP, RN Singh said earlier in the day.
Six coaches of the train, which was running at a speed of over 100 kmph, were severely damaged, he added. One coach crashed into a house.
Survivors were rescued and bodies pulled out till late last night and rescue operation by the National Disaster Response Force got over at around 3 AM.
The death toll in the accident went up to 22 this evening, with one more person identified as Sushil Kumar succumbing to his injuries in a hospital in Ghaziabad, according to District Magistrate of Muzaffarnagar G S Priydarshi. Of them, 15 bodies have been identified.
Principal Secretary (Information) to the UP government Awanish Kumar Awasthi said 156 people were injured in the derailment and many among them remain critical.
More than 50 injured passengers have been discharged after medical treatment while free medical treatment of another 102 injured passengers is in progress, UP Cabinet minister Satish Mahana told PTI in Lucknow.
Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu this morning had directed Railway Board Chairman to fix responsibility on "prima facie evidence by the end of day".
Jamshed, who had rushed to the accident spot, said he had seen maintenance tools on the tracks.
"Prime facie, it seems maintenance work was being carried out on the tracks.... Some maintenance work was going on, which might have caused the derailment of Utkal Express," Jamshed said.
He said a probe would reveal if any maintenance work was being done on the tracks without permission.
"Prima facie, the information is that there is divisional responsibility involved if work was being done without seeking permission. By this evening we will know if any of our staff was responsible for this," he said. It was not "clear" what kind of work was going on at the site, the official said
"However, any work on tracks has to follow a manual. We have maintenance manuals which lay down guidelines for work on any kind of railway infrastructure," Jamshed said, adding the probe will reveal if the procedures were followed
The probe, which will begin tomorrow, will be conducted by the Commissioner of Railway Safety, Shailesh Kumar Pathak, who will look into "every angle, be it sabotage, technical lapse or manual fault"
"There is some audio clip of some conversation that we will probe. Also, when we did the site inspection, we saw some equipment the railways use for track repair present there," he said
"Whenever this kind of a big accident happens, coaches get smashed, toppled, capsized and derailed. In this case, a 200-metre track has been damaged completely. It has to be investigated in detail. All measurements are being taken and every lapse is being taken into account," Jamshed said
The senior officer also said the Railway Police had lodged an FIR in the case at Khatauli under sections that included mischief causing destruction of railway property, causing death by negligence, causing grievous hurt, endangering life and personal safety
Explaining the procedure for maintenance followed by the railways, Jamshed wondered if it was followed in this case
"Fixed infrastructure on which the rail network runs like tracks, overhead equipment and signals are regularly maintained as per schedule. Maintenance of tracks is done during operations by blocking them as per requirement, according to fixed time and schedule. Written permission needs to be taken for this work," he said
He also said sometimes repair needs to be done on an emergency basis, but even then, if the next station is informed, the consequent trains are stopped
"Then we get our supervisors on the track which is inspected and repaired after which the trains are allowed to run with a speed restriction. Red flags are also shown to trains in case there is a problem on the tracks," he said
He said it would be investigated if these protocols were followed this time
Meanwhile, an FIR has been lodged against unknown persons under sections 287 (negligent conduct with respect to machinery), 337 (causing hurt by act endangering life or personal safety of others), 338 (causing grievous hurt by act endangering life or personal safety of others), 304a (causing death by negligence) and 427 (mischief causing damage to the amount of fifty rupees) of the Indian Penal Code and sections 151 (damage to or destruction of certain railway properties) and 153 (endangering safety of persons travelling by railway by wilful act or omission) of Railway Act.