balasore rail crash
Workers walk on a rail track as a train arrives at Bahanaga Bazar railway station, near the site of a train collision following the accident in Balasore district in the eastern state of Odisha, India, June 5, 2023. Image Credit: Reuters

  • Crash in Odisha state claims at least 275 lives
  • Worst Indian train disaster in over two decades
  • Families search hospitals, mortuaries for relatives
  • Crash site track reopens to train services

Kharagpur: India’s official investigation into its deadliest rail crash in over two decades began on Monday, after preliminary findings pointed to signal failure as the likely cause for a collision that killed at least 275 people and injured 1,200.

The disaster struck on Friday, when a passenger train hit a stationary freight train, jumped the tracks and hit another passenger train passing in the opposite direction near the district of Balasore, in the eastern state of Odisha.

Following non-stop efforts to rescue survivors, and clear and repair the track, trains resumed running over that section of the line on Sunday night.

Trains were passing slowly by the derailed and mangled compartments, while the repair work continued at the track side.


Probe into rail disaster begins

Some 120 kilometres further north, at Kharagpur in West Bengal state, railway officials and witnesses gathered to submit evidence to a two-day inquiry, led by A.M. Chowdhary, commissioner of railway safety for the south-eastern circle.

“Everyone involved at the site have been asked to join the inquiry. The probe will take time and we are looking at all possible angles,” Chowdhary told reporters.

India’s Railway Board, the top executive body, has recommended that the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the country’s federal investigative agency, take over the probe into the cause of the disaster.

Chowdhary said he will submit his report to the Railway Board while the CBI investigation could run simultaneously.

Copy of India_Train_Derailment_29919--88216-1685778827094
Rescuers work at the site of passenger trains accident, in Balasore district, in the eastern Indian state of Orissa, Saturday, June 3, 2023. Two passenger trains derailed in India, killing more than 200 people and trapping hundreds of others inside more than a dozen damaged rail cars officials said. (AP Photo) Image Credit: AP
What happened?
The Coromandal Express, a passenger train travelling from Kolkata to Chennai, was diverted onto a loop line on Friday evening and slammed into a stationary goods train loaded with tonnes of iron ore.

The collision flipped the carriages of the Coromandal Express onto another track.

The derailed compartments then struck the rear carriages of another fast train, the Howrah Superfast Express from India's tech hub Bengaluru, which was passing in the opposite direction.

The two fast trains were carrying more than 2,000 passengers.

Trains in India are usually packed at this time of year, with many people travelling during school holidays.

Preliminary investigations indicated the Coromandel Express, heading southbound to Chennai from Kolkata, moved off the main line and entered a loop track - a side track used to park trains - at 128 kmph, crashing into the stationary freight train.

That crash caused the engine and 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 at 126 kmph on the second main track.

Relatives in desperate search

At state capital Bhubaneswar’s biggest hospital, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), authorities set up large television screens with pictures of the dead to help desperate families, who are scouring hospitals and mortuaries for their loved ones.

Pradeep Jena, chief secretary of Odisha, told reporters that 170 bodies had so far been identified, more than half of the total toll.

Others were still searching for their relatives.

“We’ve checked all the hospitals but couldn’t find the body.

We are really exhausted,” said a man, displaying a picture of his missing cousin Anjarul Hoque.

There was also an incident of a double claim for a dead body at the hospital in Bhubaneswar.

Afuy Shaikh and Dilip Kumar Sabar both sought to claim the body with tag number 63. Police officials said that a DNA test would be required if identification was inconclusive.

“We have to move towards normalisation... Our responsibility is not over yet,” said railway minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, his voice choking with emotion.

The Chennai-bound Coromandel Express was due to resume running on Monday for the first time since the accident, but the service was cancelled shortly before departure.

Aditya Chaudhary, chief public relations officer of South Eastern Railway, told Reuters this was due to a shortage of train coaches.

How many died?
The death toll has been revised several times since the crash.

Officials had initially reported it stood at 288 but the Odisha state government has since revised the toll downwards to 275 after some bodies were mistakenly counted twice.

Of the 1,175 injured, 382 were still being treated in hospitals, authorities said Sunday.

However, many fear the death toll could still rise because medical centres are overwhelmed by the number of casualties.

It is the worst crash since 1999, when 285 were killed when two passenger trains collided at Gaisal in West Bengal, an accident blamed on human error.

What went wrong?

Ashwini Vaishnaw, India's railway minister, has suggested the crash happened due to the "change that occurred during electronic interlocking".

That refers to a complex signal system designed to stop trains colliding by arranging their movement on the tracks.

"We have identified the cause of the accident and the people responsible for it," Vaishnaw said, but added it was "not appropriate" to give details before a final investigation report was completed.

Local media have quoted a preliminary investigation report, with the Times of India saying a "human error in signalling may have caused the collision between three trains".

India's Railway Board has recommended a high-level probe into the disaster by the federal investigating agency.

What is India's safety record

India has launched a $30 billion railway infrastructure modernisation in a bid to boost the economy and connectivity, and Vaishnaw said last month tracks were being "upgraded very rapidly".

In 2022, India built 5,200 kilometres (3,230 miles) of new tracks, and upgraded or replaced about another 7,500-8,000 kilometres, Vaishnaw said.

But analysts say that while accidents have reduced over time, India's antiquated rail system still has a long way to go.

An average of 20,000 people died each year between 2017 and 2021 in rail accidents - collisions, derailments and other causes - according to official records.

A report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, the country's top audit authority, said derailment was the reason for 69 percent of the accidents.

Defective tracks, poor maintenance and old signalling kit combined with human error were the main cause, it said.