Balasore odisha rain train crash
Restoration work underway at the train accident site in Balasore, Odisha on Sunday, June 4, 2023. Image Credit: ANI

New Delhi: Investigators are probing an electronic track management system that they suspect malfunctioned and caused India’s deadliest train crash in more than two decades, railways officials said on Sunday.

At least 275 people were killed on Friday when a passenger train hit a stationary freight train, went off the tracks and hit another passenger train passing in the opposite direction in the eastern state of Odisha.

In their first detailed briefing on the crash, Indian Railways officials said that failure of the track management system was the main focus of investigations.

The computer-controlled track management system, called the interlocking system, directs a train to an empty track at the point where two tracks meet, Sandeep Mathur, principal executive director for signalling, told reporters.

train rail crash balasore odisha
People walk past a damaged coach at the site of a train collision following the accident in Balasore district in the eastern state of Odisha, India, June 4, 2023. Image Credit: Reuters

It also coordinates and controls the signal to an oncoming train, indicating whether the train has to move straight or switch to a new track, he said.

It is supposed to be tamper-proof, error-proof. It is called a fail-safe system, even if it fails the signal will turn red and the train will be stopped” said Jaya Varma Sinha, a member of the Railway Board that runs the giant state monopoly.

However, as it is being suspected, there was some kind of a problem in the system.” Explaining the sequence of events that led to the crash at Bahanaga station in Balasore district, Sinha said the Coromandel Express heading to Chennai from Kolkata moved out of the main track, entered a loop track a side track used to park trains at a speed of 128 kph (80 mph) and crashed into a freight train carrying iron ore that was parked on the loop track.

The crash caused the engine and the first four or five coaches of the Coromandel Express to jump the tracks, topple and hit the last two coaches of the Yeshwantpur-Howrah train heading in the opposite direction on the second main track, she said.

The interlocking system should not have allowed the Coromandel Express to take the loop track, Sinha said.

She said she had spoken to the injured driver of that train and he had told her that he was within the speed limit and had not jumped a signal and all of this would be verified by systems that record track and train details, she said.

She did not name the driver.

“There are many possibilities of what can go wrong,” Sinha said.

This could include someone digging in the area through which cables of the electronic system pass and damaging them in the process, or a short-circuit, or a machine failing.

99.9% there is no possibility of the machine failing but there is a 0.1% chance of failure” she said. That possibility is always there in all kinds of systems.” She did not name the supplier or manufacturer, or the age of the system. But said it is in use across almost the entire Indian railway network.

India’s deadliest rail accidents
Here are details of some of the deadliest rail accidents in recent decades in India, where a railway official said at least 275 people were killed in a train crash in eastern state of Odisha on Friday.

June 1981: At least 800 people are killed when seven rear coaches of an overcrowded passenger train are blown off the track and fall into a river during a cyclone.
July 1988: An express train leaves the rails and plunges into a monsoon-swollen lake near Quilon in southern India, killing at least 106 people.
August 1995 - At least 350 people are killed when two trains collide 200 km (125 miles) from Delhi.
August 1999 - Two trains collide near Calcutta, leading to the deaths of at least 285 people.
October 2005: Several coaches of a passenger train derail in southern Andhra Pradesh state, near Velugonda. At least 77 people are killed.
July 2011: Around 70 people are killed and over 300 injured when a mail train derails in Fatehpur.
November 2016: Some 146 people are killed and more than 200 injured when an express train derails in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
January 2017: At least 41 people are killed after several coaches of a passenger train go off the rails in southern Andhra Pradesh state.
October 2018: A commuter train runs through a crowd gathered on the tracks for a festival in northern India’s Amritsar city, killing at least 59 people and injuring 57.