Two days after the three-train crash that resulted in 275 deaths and 803 injuries in Odisha’s Balasore district, the Ministry of Railways has recommended an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into the incident, Union Railways minister Ashwini Vaishnaw announced on Sunday.
“Keeping in mind the circumstances of the accident and the administrative information that has been received, the Railway Board has recommended a CBI investigation going forward,” he told reporters in Bhubaneswar.
Railway Board Member Jaya Varma Sinha, in New Delhi, told reporters the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) is already assisting the Railways in the probe and preliminary findings indicated a signalling error.
“It is being suspected that there was some interference with the system. Whether it was physical interference or something else will be found in the commissioner of railway safety (CRS) probe,” Sinha said. She clarified that the existence of Kavach on the network would not have been able to avert the accident.
The statutory inquiry by CRS would be conducted, starting Monday. “Rail users, local public and others may be present at the given time and place and may depose before the commission, regarding any information related to the accident case,” a statement by South Eastern Railway said.
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As the criminal probe nears, Sinha told Business Standard that no officer in this case is currently absconding.
Meanwhile, two railway tracks have been made fit to carry trains after bulldozers and cranes removed capsized coaches on the main trunk line connecting eastern and southern India.
Earlier in the day, Vaishnaw said that electronic interlocking and point machines have been identified as the root cause of the issue. “It won’t be appropriate for me to say anything as there is an investigation going on, but the cause and the people responsible have been identified. Let the investigation by authorities take its course.”
The accident happened at around 7 pm on June 2, after the Shalimar-Chennai Coromandel Express collided with a goods train on the adjacent track near Bahanaga Bazaar station in Balasore.
A loop line is provided for temporary stoppage of trains in the event of a train behind being given priority in movement. In this case, the express train was cleared to go straight on the main line and the goods train was on the loop line. However, the express train instead moved towards the loop line instead of its original course and collided with the goods train at full speed as the loco pilot expected to go smoothly on the main line and did not envisage any reason to stop or slow the train down.
“The impact was such that 21 coaches of the train derailed and three coaches infringed on the other track,” the official report of the incident said.
At the same time, the Howrah-Bengaluru express train was passing through from the opposite direction and the three derailed coaches infringing on the other track rammed into the passing train, taking two of its coaches out. A fourth goods train, stabled at the loop line on the other side, was also impacted.
An error unheard of: Ex-railway official
“Prima facie, it looks like an act of criminal negligence,” Lalit Trivedi, former general manager of East Central Railway, told Business Standard, after going through data found in the preliminary probe from the event logger. “Apparently some shortcut was adopted as a result of which the aspect of the up main signal and the position of switch (point) governing the up route was not in consonance.”
“It is a clear technology failure. An occupied line cannot be signalled for any subsequent train. Based on the electronic interlocking system, even if there is a human error, the system will not permit it to happen. This error is unheard of. Electronic interlocking is something that replaced the old mechanical system of lever-based manual shifting,” said Shanti Narain, former member (traffic) of the Railway Board.
“A large portion of the Indian tracks are running on a capacity of between 120-150 per cent. When railway officials are being pressured to find new space and timings for trains like Vande Bharat, it affects their performance, in terms of handling such busy routes. Moreover, new trains are supposed to be running at a high speed, compared to the existing trains on that route. This is causing concern for railway staff, as well,” said a railway industry expert.
From FY17 to FY21, the average speed of freight trains increased from 23.7 km per hour to 41.2 km per hour. This has also created pressure on the already congested tracks, though a lot of maintenance works were done in the last few years. Another official drew a comparison with the United States railways to indicate the pressure on Indian tracks.
The US has 260,000 km length of rail network and handles around 1.5 billion tonnes of freight. On the other hand, with a track length of just 68,000 km India is carrying the same amount of freight. In addition to this, the same track is handling around 20-25 million passengers a day.