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Odisha train tragedy raises questions about rail safety and signals system

As India grapples with the worst train accident in decades, only a comprehensive and unbiased inquiry can uncover the complete sequence of events.

Published : Jun 04, 2023 23:51 IST - 10 MINS READ

Restoration work on at the site of the triple train accident near Bahanaga Bazar railway station in Balasore district, Odisha.

Restoration work on at the site of the triple train accident near Bahanaga Bazar railway station in Balasore district, Odisha. | Photo Credit: Swapan Mahapatra

On June 2, at 6:55 pm, the Yeshwantpur-Howrah Express entered Bahanaga Bazar station in northeast Odisha, just 250 km away from its destination, hurtling down at over 125 kmph along a section of railway track cleared for trains to operate at 130 kmph. Just 35 seconds later, the Coromandel Express from Howrah entered tracks next to it along the station at a similar speed, bound for Chennai.

Shortly after, the ground in the area shook with an earth-shatteringly noisy thud, leaving nearly 300 passengers dead and over 1,000 injured. As of the publication of this report, 200 people who died in the accident remain unidentified. Access to the site has been hampered by train cancellations (over 100 trains have been cancelled) and exorbitantly high air ticket prices to Odisha’s capital, Bhubaneswar. According to media reports and anecdotal evidence, many families wanting to reach the site are unable to do so.

In the worst train accident in nearly three decades, the 12841 Coromandel Express in the ‘Up’ line collided against a stationary goods train in the loop line next to it. The impact sent the engine on top of the goods train, derailing 21 coaches of the express and resulting in the remaining coaches being thrown all over, including onto the ‘down’ line track, where another express train travelling at almost the same speed, the Yeshwantpur Express, was passing.

Some coaches of the Coromandel Express hit this express train, resulting in major damage to human lives and the derailment of the last few coaches of the Yeshwantpur Express. The impact threw passengers off the compartments, mangled the sturdy and safe LHB coaches made in Kapurthala and Raebareli, and raised serious questions about rail safety. One coach was seen a few inches away from the ‘down’ loop line head (engine) where another goods train, with two engines, was detained to allow the express trains to pass.

Fears of higher death toll than reported

There is no clear idea of the number of passengers involved. Regarding the Yeshwantpur Express, a railway spokesperson stated that 994 reserved passengers and around 300 unreserved passengers boarded from Sir M Visvesvaraya Terminal (SVMB), Bangalore. Two unreserved coaches and the Brake Van of the train that left SMVB derailed. There needs to be a proper estimate of passengers travelling in the unreserved coach.

What is known is that both the Coromandel Express and Yeshwantpur Express had overcrowded unreserved coaches. According to several Twitter users who take the Coromandel Express, even the sleeper coaches, where only reserved passengers are supposed to be seated, are taken over by other passengers. Several passengers who had reservations have often shared pictures of the scenes. Hence, there is a fear that the actual death toll might be even higher than the figure released on June 4 evening.

The Deputy Station Superintendent (DySS) of the station, who is in charge of traffic movement, could not physically see what was going on in the ‘Up’ line track or the ‘down’ line track as he was blinded by the goods train on line 2 (the platform was on the loop line 1). Of the five tracks in the station, the platform loop line was left free, while the other goods train was detained on line 5. The two express trains were supposed to pass along the ‘up’ and ‘down’ main lines–a normal process that occurs every few minutes in most of the 7,349 railway stations across India (except for terminal stations and junctions).

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Across India, those in the rank of the DySS operate the Solid State Instrumentation Panel, which shows the entire section of track under the control of the station and makes decisions on train movement. They are advised in this process by the divisional controllers, who are based at the divisional headquarters of each of the 68 Railway Divisions in India.

A Data Logger is placed in the station, the divisional headquarters, and in each of the 18 zonal headquarters of the Indian Railways to record the movement of trains and all other actions taken (such as the movement of a trolley) across all the tracks in stations in the Indian Railways. The Data Logger is similar to an aeroplane black box – it records the time at which each event occurred.

As soon as the DySS heard the noise, he reversed the signal for the main line on which the Yeshwantpur Express was. This action had no real implications since a train running at nearly 130 kmph after receiving the green signal could only be stopped after a certain distance. In most accidents, it is the DySS (or station master) who is usually the first person to be suspended. However, he is not at fault. He worked by the book, as will be made clear from the data logger in the station, divisional, and zonal HQ.

Based on the sequence of events and the impact on the Yashwantpur Express, which occurred in the last few coaches, it can be safely assumed that if the train had passed Bahanaga Bazar (BNBR) 10 seconds earlier than it actually did, it would have avoided the collision. Conversely, if the Yashwantpur Express had been 10 seconds late at BNBR, India would have witnessed its worst train disaster since independence.

Investigation into the accident

It is evident that only a comprehensive and unbiased inquiry can uncover the complete sequence of events. There is evidence indicating that maintenance work was being conducted on the electrically operated boom barrier (gate) earlier in the day. According to a Railway staff member, in such cases, it is possible for an incorrect indication to appear on the screen, suggesting that the track needs to be cleared for through traffic (meaning that the panel does not allow interlocking due to an inference that the gate is not closed). In similar incidents across Indian Railways, staff members resort to “overrides,” disregarding the danger indication because it is non-existent. However, such overrides may have unintended consequences. This working theory is essentially the stance of the Railways, as expressed by both the Railway Minister and a member of the highest decision-making body of Indian Railways, the Railway Board.

On June 4, Union Railway Minister Ashwini Vasihnaw informed the press that the investigation would explore why the electronic signal system did not function as intended. Jaya Varma Sinha, a Railway Board Member, stated to the press that “there were some issues with the signalling.” She added, “We are still awaiting the detailed report from the Commissioner of Railway Safety. Only the Coromandel Express was involved in the accident, travelling at a speed of approximately 128 km/hr.”

Typically, the Chief Commissioner of Railway Safety, an individual from outside the Railways, conducts the investigation. Railway officials assist the Chief Commissioner as requested. The Railways only determine the subsequent course of action after the submission of the Commissioner’s report. Additionally, it is highly unusual for no one to be suspended shortly after an accident. However, in this case, no suspensions have been made thus far.

Interestingly, on June 4, the Railway Board decided to transfer the investigation to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), an agency currently headed by Praveen Sood, who was recently appointed as Director after being removed from the post of Director General of Police in Karnataka on May 14 following the victory of the Congress party. Sood lacks central-level experience, and the appointments were made without following the necessary empanelment procedure.

A woman holds a child and looks at the wreckage of a rail coach lying next to train tracks on June 04, 2023 in Bahanaga village in Balasore district,

A woman holds a child and looks at the wreckage of a rail coach lying next to train tracks on June 04, 2023 in Bahanaga village in Balasore district, | Photo Credit: Abhishek Chinnappa

Other systemic problems

A senior Railway staff member, who preferred to remain anonymous, commented, “The accident is one hundred percent due to the privatisation of the track and signal departments in Railways. In my experience working in the VDU panel, even a minor failure cannot be attended to by railway signal personnel, and we have to wait for the private company technicians who installed the system.”

Another former senior official, also requesting anonymity, stated that the blanket sentiment of “no privatisation” would not be viable for the Railways, as it had taken on numerous non-core tasks such as supplying blankets, cooking, managing accommodations, and more. This official believed that there should be an understanding of which sectors were core and needed to be managed by the Railways themselves, and which could be outsourced.

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One ongoing complaint from the traffic and operations department of the Railways is the exclusive access to the data logger held by the signal staff. The All India Station Master’s Association has repeatedly demanded that the data logger, which is a monitoring device currently under the control of the signals department (kept in a closed room with no access for anyone else), should be overseen by the safety department of the Railways.

Political reactions

The Congress openly called for the resignation of the Railway Minister, while the third-largest party in parliament, the DMK, urged the government to accept responsibility for the accident. Most other political parties also demanded that the government cease obfuscation and begin addressing the larger issues of rail safety. The railway system transports over eight billion passengers a year and serves as a lifeline for the poor and blue-collar migrant workers.

Nearly all politicians raised questions about the widely publicised anti-collision device, Kavach. The TMC pointed out that these devices were introduced by the Railways in 2011 when Mamata Banerjee was the Railway Minister to prevent collisions through automatic brakes. The party questioned why the system had not been implemented across the board twelve years after its introduction.

Regarding the deadly train tragedy in Odisha, former railway minister Dinesh Trivedi told a news television channel that it was a “freak” accident. He added that the inquiry committee should investigate whether sabotage was involved, a sentiment echoed by BJP sympathisers.

Communal angle

The initial reaction of supporters of the right-wing ecosystem in India to anyone demanding accountability for the train tragedy was to label them as “vultures.” On June 3, at 3:47 pm, a Twitter handle named “The Random India” (@randomsena) with no Twitter bio, shared a cropped drone image of the accident site. The handle drew an arrow pointing to a part of the picture that contained an unclear structure resembling a minaret. The accompanying tweet read, “Just Saying. Yesterday was Friday.”

Although this handle only has 54,500 followers, the tweet was viewed by 4.3 million people. As of 3 pm on June 4, it had received 4,598 retweets, 1,094 quote tweets, and 14,600 likes. After many Twitter users reported the tweet, the for-profit company added context instead of removing it. They clarified, “The highlighted building is the Bahanaga ISKCON temple, as confirmed by a journalist at the scene of the crash. It is not a mosque.” They also included a link to the fact-checking website Alt News.

A quick look at the @randomsena handle reveals that the number of retweets and likes for many of its inflammatory posts is disproportionately high compared to its following. Any social media user would easily recognise that sites like these are sponsored and have a specific agenda. In response to this tweet, the same handle posted at 4:05 pm on June 3, “Just for Information: Balasore is a hub of illegal Rohingya Muslims.”

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Anubhav Das, who claimed on social media to be a survivor of the train accident, liked this tweet. According to Alt News fact-checker Mohammed Zubair, Das also gave statements like “possible sabotage” to the news agency ANI. The idea of sabotage was also promoted by handles with right-wing leanings such as journalist @SureshChavhanke (“...Terrorists have played Holi with blood earlier too...”), @captaink99 (“Railway terrorism”), @tangdi_kabab (“It was also a Friday coincidentally”), @fin_wit (“...difficult without an insider”), and @SureshBanglore (“It is a clear case of sabotage”). Additionally, a few Facebook pages in local languages appeared, innocently asking if the Assistant Station Master’s name was “Sharif.”

As more established and newer handles began spreading venom against the Muslim community in connection with the accident, the Odisha Police described these actions as “highly unfortunate” and warned that “severe legal action would be taken against those spreading rumours and attempting to create communal disharmony.” Several Twitter users tagged the Delhi Police and Bangalore Police to draw attention to the attempts to communalise the tragedy.

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