275 people died when three trains collided with one another in Odisha. The worst Indian train accident in this century is raising questions about the government’s priorities. But the Railways Minister insists the tragedy was caused by a “criminal act.”
Tell me how this happened…
The location: The accident took place at the Bahanaga Bazar station in the Balasore district:
The train tracks: at the station are laid out so:
As you can see, there is an Up (blue) and Down (red) line—which is assigned to the train that has priority. The Up track goes south towards Chennai—while the Down line goes east toward Howrah (Kolkata). There are two loop lines on either side—where trains can be parked to give way to the trains travelling up and down the main lines.
The accident: The Coromandel Express was headed from Howrah to Chennai on the Up line—and was scheduled to speed past the Bahanaga Bazar station without making a stop. It crossed the station at full speed at 6:52 pm on Friday—but instead of travelling down the main line, the train was diverted into one of the loop lines—where a goods train was parked.
Point to note: Loop lines are short—around 1 km long—and have a speed limit of 30 km per hour. The Coromandel Express was travelling at 127 km per hour.
The domino effect: As a result of the first collision, 21 coaches of the Coromandel went off the rails—and three of its coaches slid onto the main Down line. Right at that moment, the Yeshwantpur-Howrah Express was travelling on the Down line—and had almost passed the station. Two of its rearmost coaches were hit—and were derailed.
The casualties: The accident killed at least 275 people and injured over 1,175. The two express trains were carrying around 2,000 passengers. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, however, has challenged the numbers—claiming 182 passengers from Bengal are still missing.
This drone footage gives you a sense of the scale of the collision, as well:
The big question: Focus of the investigation will be the so-called interlocking system—the computer-controlled track management system that directs a train from one track to another. Why was the Coromandel Express diverted from the main line to the loop line—when it was not scheduled to stop at the station? The official statement reveals that the train was first given the green light to travel through the station—and then the signal was changed. But it does not explain why. FWIW, a railway official told The Telegraph that the signal was definitely ‘green’—and yet the train left the main line and entered the loop line.
Data point to note: Derailments have dramatically decreased in recent decades. There were an average of 475 derailments per year around 2000. That number fell to 50 by 2021.
FYI: This is the worst train accident in India in this century. The previous tragedy at this scale occurred in 1999—when 285 people died after the Avadh Assam Express from New Delhi collided with the Brahmaputra Mail at a station in West Bengal. That too occurred due to a signalling error. The worst accident dates back to 1981—when a train derailed as it was crossing a bridge in Bihar—killing around 750.
Where we are now: Tracks have been quickly repaired. And the first goods train travelled down the restored lines on Sunday night.
And how did this “signalling error” happen?
The railway black box: We won't know all the answers until there is a full investigation—which will focus on the railway equivalent of a ‘black box’ in planes:
The data logger, also known as an event logger, is a microprocessor-based system which logs information about the relays, and records all activities in the signalling system of a railway station, officials explained. It effectively acts like the black box of an aircraft, and can scan, store and process the signal system data to generate user-friendly reports.
The government’s conspiracy theory: The Railway Ministry has asked for a CBI probe—saying that this was a “criminal act.” Officials claim this is a case of sabotage—with evidence of tampering. Minister Vaishnaw declared:
The root cause of the horrifying incident has been identified... I do not want to go into details. Let the report come out. I will just say that the root cause and the people responsible for the criminal act have been identified.
In an ideal situation, the signal is supposed to turn green simultaneously with the switching that ensures that the train runs on the right track. This operation is remotely controlled from the section office which includes the signalmen, section officers, section head and station master. “The loco pilot has no control over this,” [say officials]
The system, however, could have glitched:
- One: The signal was indeed green—and yet the Coromandel was forced onto the loop line due to a system error.
- Two: The stationmaster gave the signal from the panel board of the station—but there was a malfunction while relaying it.
How is this the government’s fault?
The sum of the criticism against the government is this: It has focused all its resources on showy rail projects—such as bullet trains—while ignoring basic safety.
The ignored warning: In February, a senior railway officer had flagged serious problems with the signalling system in a letter to key bureaucrats above him. He pointed out that a train’s route is sometimes changed by the system—after it has already followed “signals with the correct appearance of the route in the Station master’s panel.” The warning was triggered by a near disaster in Mysore—where the Sampark Kranti Express almost had a head-on collision with a goods train. Tragedy was averted due to alert action of the train pilot.
Point to note: Local teams are required to get permission to conduct repairs—which suspends operations in the station. But due to the crowded rail schedule such blocks are hard to secure. So the team often does the job without securing a block. According to the official, this is what happened in Mysore:
Mr. Verma said the Signal Maintainer had not served a disconnection memo to the Station Master to seek his permission to carry out the repair of the signal failure. Had he done so, the Station Master would have followed the protocol of safe movement of trains. “The present incident must be viewed very seriously and immediate corrective actions are required to be taken to rectify the system faults and also sensitise the staff for not venturing into shortcuts leading to major mishap,” he had said.
Suraksha, what suraksha? An audit prepared by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India shows that 75% of 217 “consequential train accidents” between FY2018 and FY2021 were caused by derailments. The key factor: the lack of track maintenance.
More worryingly, the railway initiative dedicated to safety—the Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh (RRSK)—cut back spending on track safety—from Rs 96.07 billion (9,607.65 crore) FY2019 to Rs 74.17 billion (7,417 crore) in FY2020. The Railways also failed to contribute its share to the initiative—creating a shortfall of Rs 160 billion (16,000 crore) in funding. Not that it mattered since even the allocated funds were not fully utilised.
Also this: Forget repair, even track inspections have not been a priority. The CAG report flagged a shortfall between 30% to 100% in required inspections:
Along some segments of tracks in the SouthEast Region, for instance, the railways conducted only 16 inspections instead of a mandated 32. Along other segments in the same region, the railways conducted only 3 inspections instead of the mandated 18.
Where’s the staff? At least some of this is a result of cutbacks in staffing. Back in January, the government revealed that a staggering 312,000 posts in the Railways are lying vacant. The kicker, however, is this:
In the Central Railway, of the 28,650 vacant posts, almost 50% of the vacancies (14,203) are in the safety category that primarily include operating and maintenance staff, such as inspectors of various kinds, drivers, train examiners, shunters, amongst several others.
As a result, the existing staff is overworked—putting great stress on the system.
Priorities, priorities, priorities: Yet, in this same period, the government has been busy launching bullet train projects—with great fanfare:
Modi had flagged off the first Vande Bharat train between Delhi and Varanasi in February 2019. The railway ministry said in February 2022 that it planned to introduce 400 Vande Bharat trains over the next three years. This year, till April 12, Modi had flagged six Vande Bharat trains.
The new safety tech: In March 2022, Railways Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw held a demonstration of a high-tech Automatic Train Protection System called Kavach:
Kavach is meant to provide protection by preventing trains to pass the signal at danger (red) and avoid collision. It activates the train braking system automatically if the driver fails to control the train as per the speed restrictions. In addition, it prevents collision between two locomotives equipped with functional Kavach systems.
The government promised to aggressively roll it out across 2,000 km in the last fiscal year.
But, but, but: Kavach was not implemented on the Howrah-Chennai route. However, it may not have been much help. The distance between the goods train and the Coromandel Express was barely 120 metres when the latter switched tracks. Kavach needs a distance of at least 600 metres to 2 km to kick in.
The bottomline: What can we say except say once again: ‘Priorities, priorities, priorities.’