On June 2, at 6:55 pm, the Yesvantpur-Howrah Express entered Bahanaga Bazar station in north-east Odisha, just 250 km short of its destination, hurtling down at over 125 kmph on a main line. Roughly 35 seconds later, the Coromandel Express from Howrah entered the station on the track next to it at a similar speed, bound for Chennai, also on a main line. Shortly after, the ground shook with an earth-shattering thud. By the time the dust settled, as many as 288 passengers had died and over 1,000 were injured.
There is no clear idea yet of the number of passengers involved. Regarding the Yesvantpur Express, a railway spokesperson stated that 994 reserved passengers and around 300 unreserved passengers boarded from Sir M Visvesvaraya Terminal in Bengaluru. Two unreserved coaches and the brake van of the train were derailed.
Both trains involved in the accident had overcrowded unreserved coaches. According to several Twitter users who have travelled in the Coromandel Express, even the sleeper coaches, where only reserved passengers are supposed to be seated, are usually taken over by unreserved passengers.
The Deputy Station Superintendent (DySS) 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 loop line 1). 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).
Solid State Instrumentation Panel
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 make 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 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 the stations of 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 Yesvantpur Express was running. This action had no real implications since a train running at nearly 130 kmph can only come to a stop after a certain distance. In most accidents, it is the DySS (or station master) who is usually the first person to be suspended. However, in this instance he seems to have worked by the book, as will be made clear from the data logger at the station, divisional, and zonal HQ.
Based on the sequence of events and the impact on the Yesvantpur Express, it can be safely assumed that if the train had passed Bahanaga Bazar 10 seconds earlier than it actually did, it would have avoided the collision.
Conversely, if the Yesvantpur Express had been 10 seconds late at Bahanaga Bazar, it would have hit the Coromandel Express and India would have witnessed its worst train disaster since Independence.
- The crash near Bahanaga Bazar station in Balasore, Odisha, on June 2, at 6:55 pm, involved three trains—the Yesvantpur-Howrah Express, the Coromandel Express and a goods train.
- As many as 288 passengers died and over 1,000 were injured, but there is no clear idea yet of the total number of passengers travelling in the trains.
- While Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw informed the press on June 4 that the investigation would explore why the electronic signal system did not function, a senior staff member opined that the accident was “100 per cent due to the privatisation of the track and signal departments in Railways.”
Investigation into the accident
There is evidence 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 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.
“Based on the sequence of events and the impact on the Yesvantpur Express, it can be safely assumed that if the train had passed Bahanaga Bazar 10 seconds earlier than it actually did, it would have avoided the collision. ”
On June 4, Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw 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, told the press that “there were some issues with the signalling”. Sinha 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.”
A senior Railway staff member, who preferred to remain anonymous, commented: “The accident is 100 per cent 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, said 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, catering, 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, and which could be outsourced.
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 (it is kept in a locked room with no access for anyone else). The All India Station Masters Association has repeatedly demanded that the data logger be overseen by the safety department of the Railways.