Dubai: Rescuers found no more survivors in the overturned and mangled wreckage of two passenger trains that derailed in eastern India, killing more than 280 people and injuring hundreds in one of the country’s deadliest rail crashes in decades, officials said Saturday.
Chaotic scenes erupted after the derailment on Friday night as rescuers climbed atop the wrecked trains to break open doors and windows using cutting torches.
The death toll rose steadily throughout the night. Scores of bodies, covered by white sheets, lay on the ground near the tracks as locals and rescuers raced to help survivors. Soldiers and air force helicopters joined the effort.
The tragic accident occurred near Balasore district’s Bahanaga Baazar station that lies almost 250km south of Kolkata, capital city of West Bengal state, and 170km north of Odisha’s capital Bhubaneswar.
According to officials and witnesses, the tragedy occurred in a matter of minutes, between 7pm and 7.05pm.
The accident happened after a passenger train, the Coromandel Shalimar Express, heading to Chennai, reportedly derailed and hit a goods train, after which many coaches flipped over.
Another train, the Bengaluru-Howrah Superfast Express, then crashed into the derailed coaches of the other two trains. Both trains were moving at a high speed when the collisions happened.
Four tracks and three trains
The Coromandel had crossed Kharagpur and Balasore, and its next stop would have been Bhadrak. The train was running almost exactly on time, and would have crossed Bahanaga Bazar (without stopping) at 7.01pm, The Indian Express said.
There were four tracks: The Up Main Line (towards Chennai), the Down Main line (towards Howrah), and two loop lines on the two sides. The purpose of a loop is to park a train on the side so that the main line is left clear for a faster or more important train. As the Coromandel approached, the loop line was occupied by a goods train going in the same (Up) direction. The Coromandel was supposed to go past it on the main line.
According to the short brief on the accident issued by the Railways, “Up Train No. 12841 — passing through Up Main Line — dashed with stationary Goods Train in Up Loop Line. The train was going at full speed across the station as it was not supposed to stop at the station…”
Coromandel instead of going past goods train enters loop
It is obvious from the brief that the Coromandel, instead of going past the goods train on the main line, entered the loop and smashed into the goods train from the rear. Pictures from the spot show the Coromandel’s locomotive perched atop the goods train.
Locomotive drivers are guided by signals, not so much by what they see on the tracks, especially in the dark. While details will be known after the inquiry, the Railways are looking at the possibility of a signalling error, sources have told The Indian Express.
A multi-disciplinary joint inspection by supervisors has concluded that a green signal was given to the Coromandel to pass through on the designated main line, and then the signal was taken off. The train entered the loop line, and rammed into the goods train.
“We after careful observation, came to the conclusion that signal was given, and taken off, for Up main line for 12841, but this train entered into Up loop line and dashed with goods train which was on Up loop line and derailed,” says a note prepared by the joint inspection team.
At the same time as the Coromandel hit the goods train, a third train, the 12864 Yesvantpur-Howrah Express, was going past on the adjacent Down main line, headed towards Howrah (in the opposite direction). Most of this train had already crossed the point of the accident when the Coromandel crashed into the goods train. However, the last few coaches were impacted. These derailed — either because they were hit by coaches of the Coromandel that toppled on to them, or because of the shock waves that could have passed through the ground and the tracks.
Officials in the Railways are looking into signalling error/ failure as well as issues to do with the driver — known as the “loco pilot” in the Railways, a top source told The Indian Express.
Here’s is how it happened according to Indian media reports:
3:20pm: The Shalimar-Chennai Central Coromandel Express departs from Shalimar station and arrives in Balasore at 6:30pm.
7.01pm: Around 10 to 12 coaches of the train derail near Baleswar and topple onto the opposite track and collide with a stationary goods train.
Between 7.01pm to 7.05pm: The Bengaluru-Howrah Superfast Express, travelling in the opposite direction rams into the derailed coaches of the Shalimar-Chennai Coromandel Express.
Three to four coaches of this train get derailed after the crash.
Residents of the neighbouring villages were among the first to reach the site of the accident and start the rescue operation.
Causes behind accidents
According to the 2022 National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report, railway accidents witnessed a 38.2 per cent surge in 2021 as compared to the previous year.
Maharashtra accounted for 19.4 per cent of the reported 17,993 accidents, followed by West Bengal.
“The 17,993 railway accidents caused injuries to 1,852 people and caused deaths to 16,431 people during 2021,” said the NCRB data.
Human errors such as fault of drivers, sabotage, signalman’s error and mechanical failures were other reasons behind the accidents, reported The New Indian Express citing NCRB.
Why do train derailments occur?
According to a Hindustan Times report, train derailments mostly occur due to “rail fractures” owing to the expansion or contraction of tracks during extreme summer or winter conditions.
An internal railways memo in 2014 called the fracturing of tracks “the nightmare of the [railways] engineering department”, reported BBC.
“One particular incident cannot cause a derailment. It has to be a combination of three, four or five different mistakes before a derailment happens,” Swapnil Garg, professor of Strategy Management at the Indian Institute of Management, Indore, told IndiaSpend.
“When there is a signalling failure, mechanical failures and civil engineering failures, we find that these collectively result in a derailment,” he added.
Lack of maintenance and funds are also responsible for rail accidents, experts have said.