Accidents are not rare in the Indian Railways: there were 48 train accidents in 2022-23, including six collisions, 35 “consequential” train accidents in the 2021-22, and 22 in 2020-21. Sabotage was stated as the reason for two accidents in 2017-18 and for one in 2021-22.
But the multiple-train accident on June 2 in Bahanaga Bazar station in Balasore in north-eastern Odisha, which involved three trains and left 288 passengers dead, shook the Railway establishment from its slumber and left the entire nation stunned.
In its aftermath, there were clumsy and counterproductive efforts to assuage passengers and attempts to cover up the overarching systemic flaws. Also, the element of spin, an add-on in recent years, was on full display: it was used to make the politician in charge look good or twist the facts so that they are perceived with a communal colour.
A mind-numbing parallel follows every train accident in India: the dead and injured are moved, on foot, by cart or any other means available, to the nearest available clinic or hospital or a makeshift hospital, which is not equipped to handle a sudden rush of such accident cases; the derailed coaches are pushed out of the rail tracks in the name of expeditious restoration; compensation is announced for the next of kin of the dead; and train service along the route is restored, almost always in “record time”.
This accident was no different. In addition, a large section of the media, while barely chronicling the fact that 82 bodies were yet to be identified, was busy glorifying Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw for staying at the accident site until traffic was restored, inspecting coaches without wearing safety gear, and so on. Despite these distractions, the important questions the accident has thrown up cannot be wished away.
Inquiries into the incident
Two inquiries have been initiated in parallel: one by an entity independent of the Railways, the Chief Commissioner of Railway Safety, and the second by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), an agency usually called upon to investigate corruption in high places and violent crimes.
Bahanaga Bazar station has five railway tracks in all—two main lines on which the express trains were travelling, two loop lines on which two freight trains were detained to allow the express trains to pass, and one platform line, beyond which the office of the Deputy Station Superintendent is located.
The crux of the inquiry is this: how did the Coromandel Express, which passed at least 30 stations on the main line from Shalimar (Kolkata), on its way to Chennai, crossing multiple block sections at around the same speed of just under 130 km per hour, move from the main line to the loop line in Bahanaga Bazar on June 2?
Almost instantaneously it hit the freight train’s rear guard van, throwing its initial coaches clear off the tracks; some of the coaches also hit the Yeshwantpur-Howrah Express, which happened to be passing just then on the adjacent main line. The result was one of the worst train disasters in about three decades.
Some of the answers to the questions raised in the aftermath of the accident will be available in the data logger, which is maintained at all stations and at the divisional and zonal headquarters, and in the micro-processor on board the locomotive involved in the accident.
For a train to move into a station, loco pilots need to physically see a green signal ahead of the station. Once the signal turns green, it means that the path of the train is “interlocked” and that no other train can come into that path. Interlocking ensures safety. In this case, although the signal was given for the main line, was the route set for the main line or was it set for the loop line, on which there was a goods train? While the Chief Commissioner of Railway Safety will examine this from a technical angle, the CBI will be looking for evidence to see if there was conspiracy or sabotage involved.
There is a hint of what might have happened in a June 8 circular issued by Y.N. Babu, Principal Chief Operations Manager, East Coast Railway. In a communication to all Senior Divisional Operations Managers, titled “Action to be taken regarding safety at Stations”, he said: “It is known that whenever points are changed on the panel, there will be flashing of point indication [at the actual signal] for a few seconds and overall setting of points takes about 8-10 seconds.”
This can be interpreted to mean that although the signal for the Coromandel Express was intended to be ‘red’ by the signal staff, it could have momentarily flickered to green. The loco pilot of the train too confirms that the signal was green. Across all Railway routes, signals turn red a little after the head (engine) passes the signal. This means that this was a perfect storm of unfortunate events: first, the signal turned green, possibly unintentionally, because the signal staff was trying to bypass a small existing problem; the driver saw the green signal and kept going. Soon after the engine passed the signal, it turned red.
Abraham Jacob, former Additional Member of the Railway Board, the top Railway decision-making body, said: “As per records, at the time of the train passing the signal, the signal was green. That means the looping itself failed…It is not just the looping, it is the failure of a much higher proportion, in the sense that the basic core principle on which our signalling is based, has failed. This is an integral failure.”
By definition, integrity failures can take place only if there has been an earlier failure which was not attended to. “One reason the failure happened was because there was some work done in the panel room. During the course of this work, there could have been some wrong move that might have affected the integrity of the system,” Jacob told Frontline.
Signal staff explained that many small failures take place in a signalling system. Often, these are momentary. “It is assumed that this is a bug in the system. The signal is looped [bypassed at points which show wrong indication]. There is nothing wrong in this,” a staffer said.
“Once the signal turns green, it means that the path of the train is “interlocked” and that no other train can come into that path.”
“A clear signal was given for the main line and the train went into the loop line. This is the anomaly,” Jacob said. “It is common practice in maintenance to [set the system to] loop. If there are four steps to the signalling process, looping allows you to disregard the intermediate steps and go from step one to step four.”
Jacob also said that this may be done for a variety of reasons, largely in the interest of punctuality and sometimes because there is some small unrelated problem.
The other option, instead of looping, is for the signal staff at Bahanaga Bazar, a route relay interlocking station, to issue a ‘disconnection memo’ to the Deputy Station Superintendent (Station Master) on duty. In turn, this triggers the start of a manual signalling process. The Deputy Station Superintendent, from this point, has to ensure that the point is physically set to the right track. Trains will have to be detained at the ‘home’ signal and a physical memo or message given to each train’s loco pilot that the train can enter the block section even though the signal is red. This process takes up to a minimum of 45 minutes.
A senior Railway staffer said: “Suppose several trains are passing around the same time, the net effect will be that each train will be delayed at each station. What happens at a practical level is this: supposing my gate interlocking system is a problem, the Deputy Station Superintendent takes the help of the signals engineer and bypasses the system. Once the bypassing is carried out, the signal can be turned to green and the train can pass.”
It is clear that at Bahanaga Bazar, some level crossing (LC) gate work was in progress, and this could be a possible starting point to understand what went wrong. The ‘LC gate locked’ indication is required for the signal to turn green.
According to procedure, even though boom replacement work was being carried out at the LC gate, the substitute arrangement of a ‘sliding boom’ has to be operated so that interlocking is ensured and trains can be dealt with as usual on signals. Instead of the electrically operated lifting barriers, the sliding booms are operated manually on both sides of the road. An electrical key locking arrangement is available for such booms to provide the ‘gate closed’ indication at the station panel and to clear the required signal(s).
“Wagon design is taking centre stage after the accident as it is the second most important reason for derailments.”
Before carrying out the work, the corresponding relay (an essential component in electrical signalling) would have to be disconnected and upon completion of the work it would have to be reconnected. It is possible that some mistake was made during this process and that resulted in the wrong setting of point No. 17 which was set to the loop line. But the fail-safe here is that during such work, signal staff—section engineer and technicians—are present at the spot without which the work cannot be carried out. So, here too one is left puzzled.
Of all the events that happened subsequently, one that needs immediate action on the part of the Railways is the issue of passengers who are almost always perched precariously near the doors of the general compartments of trains. The Coromandel Express is one of the most crowded trains in the country, and ferries hundreds of job-seekers from the eastern and north-eastern States where jobs are hard to find and wages are low, to the labour-scarce and more prosperous regions of south India.
- Although the signal for the Coromandel Express was intended to be “red” by the signal staff, it could have momentarily flickered to green.
- “The basic core principle on which our signalling is based, has failed. This is an integral failure,” says former Railway Board member.
- Wagon design is taking centre stage after the accident as it is the second most important reason for derailments.
The subsidiary question that demands an explanation is the sight of the mangled LHB coaches that are touted to be “sturdy and safe”. These passenger coaches, developed by Linke-Hofmann-Busch of Germany, are now mostly produced by the Rail Coach Factory in Kapurthala.
Responding to a question from MPs Ravneet Singh and Su. Thirunavakkarasu on April 5, Ashwini Vaishnaw had said that the “salient feature of LHB coaches are superior riding quality, large panoramic windows, provision of bio-toilets, sliding type fire barrier doors, higher seating capacity, FRP (fibre reinforced plastic) panels in air-conditioned coaches, sturdy and robust design to minimise damage and obviate capsizing of coaches during accidents, automatic coupling centre buffer coupler for enhanced safety and anti-climbing features, superior disc brakes & efficient brake system, superior microprocessor-based AC, etc” (emphasis added).
Wagon design, hence, is again taking centre stage after the accident. According to an engineer, this is the second most important reason for a derailment because of the issue of stability and centrifugal balancing (the most important reason is track quality).
In parallel, the problem of one train ramming another is also a function of reaction time. There are problems here, too, because the nature of real-time information on accidents gets communicated to the signalling system.
“Knee-jerk actions have marked the Railways’ response. All the Railway bosses are putting out orders as well as adding to the workload of the field staff.”
In the Bahanaga Bazar accident, the coaches did not just capsize but, from one account, one coach appeared to have done half a cartwheel before landing on its side. From the available videos and pictures, it is clear that the rake composition included coaches cannibalised from Duronto Express trains, introduced in 2007—perhaps a result of Indian politicians’ continuing fascination with the concept of high-speed trains.
Right now, knee-jerk actions have marked the Railways’ response. All the Railway bosses are putting out orders, “reiterating” and “re-emphasising” existing orders as well as adding to the workload of the field staff.
In a three-page letter on June 8, Roop Narayan Sunkar, Member Infrastructure, Railway Board (who is also the ex-officio Railways Secretary), said: “In order to ensure safety and reliability of assets, regular maintenance of infrastructure is very important. Time-tested system for maintenance of track already exists in the Railways. However, to emphasise safety during day-to-day working and while carrying out special renewal works, following instructions are reiterated for strict compliance: 1) Field officials who have been provided for maintenance activities must be utilised mainly for maintenance activities. Also, it must be ensured that they spend maximum time on maintenance and work sites.”
Sources in the Railways told Frontline that while field officials are expected to work on maintenance, they are also swamped with other work because of various professional and even personal reasons. In the professional space, a massive staff shortage means that maintenance becomes just one of many roles the field staff specifically allotted to maintenance perform.
Also, there are passages in the letter that seemed to indicate that some rules were not followed, for the sake of train punctuality.
The letter said: “It is essential that adequate duration of traffic block is allowed as per demand. All necessary blocks required for maintenance and rectification of deficiencies should be made available by GMs and DRMs on the Railways/Divisions. Any refusal must bear the express approval of DRM…. The corridor blocks are sacrosanct and shall not require any separate approval. In addition, the works requiring additional duration of blocks/timing of block should be carried by planning mega blocks. Integrated block planning should be made on weekly basis and DRMs should ensure that such block plan is followed on daily basis. The exception report shall be reviewed by GM on weekly basis and comprehensive summary shall be advised to Railway Board.”
A former senior Railways official pointed out that punctuality and safety do not belong in the same sentence. He said: “The basic problem is that punctuality and safety have conflicting requirements. We have to accept that. If you want to go all out for punctuality, you will compromise on safety. What people are doing is that they find some kind of a balance and take care of both. If you want 100 per cent safety, you will follow the rule book and end up delaying trains on the slightest doubt.”
The East Coast Railway’s June 8 circular makes impractical demands of the station master and appears to be another knee-jerk reaction to the accident. The circular insists that the station master take the responsibility of locking all location boxes and cable huts in each station (some stations have two such huts). There is no word, however, about what happens to location boxes and relay huts between stations.
The circular also calls upon the divisional operating heads to ensure that station masters procure “suitable good locks”. All keys will now be with the station master and a register will have to be maintained to write down which signal staffer took the key and for what reason. Station masters have to ensure, through a ‘correspondence test’, that the system is brought to its original state in case of any ongoing work.
Railway staffers across departments will see a slew of similar orders, coming thick and fast on the heels of the accident. But one operations staffer, who has been on the job for over two decades, said that this was par for the course. “There will be some more noise. In a few weeks, this accident too will be forgotten. We will get back to what we were doing,” he said with a cynicism born from experience.