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Odisha train tragedy

Odisha train accident | Railway Board alleges ‘signalling interference’, seeks CBI probe

Commissioner of Railway Safety completes investigation; Minister says root cause of collision found to be a problem in electronic interlocking; people responsible for the error identified; Board says sabotage has not been ruled out

June 04, 2023 04:23 pm | Updated June 06, 2023 07:36 pm IST - Bhubaneshwar/New Delhi

A rescue and search operation being conducted after the accident involving three trains, in Balasore district, Odisha on June 3, 2023.

A rescue and search operation being conducted after the accident involving three trains, in Balasore district, Odisha on June 3, 2023. | Photo Credit: Biswaranjan Rout

The Railway Board has recommended a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation into the devastating multi-train collision, Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw said on June 4. The Board said that “signalling interference” has been identified as the main cause of the accident, which claimed 275 lives and left more than 1,000 injured, adding that the possibility of sabotage has not been ruled out.

“Keeping in mind the circumstances and administrative information received so far, the Railway Board is recommending a CBI inquiry for further investigation into the incident,” Mr. Vaishnaw told journalists in Bhubaneswar on Sunday evening.

An infographic depicting how the Odisha train crash may have happened based on the preliminary probe by Indian Railway Ministry. 

An infographic depicting how the Odisha train crash may have happened based on the preliminary probe by Indian Railway Ministry. 

Speaking at the crash site in Odisha’s Balasore district earlier in the day, he said that the Commissioner of Railway Safety had completed its own investigation. Saying that the root cause of the collision had been identified as a problem in electronic interlocking — which is the operational signalling system for this stretch of the track — the Minister added that the people responsible for the error had also been identified.

Also read: Odisha train accident | Probe to examine whether the Coromandel Express derailed or switched tracks

A group of Home Ministry officials have already visited the accident site and held discussions with Railway officials. At a press conference in the national capital, the Railway Board member for operations and business development Jaya Verma Sinha said that the possibility of sabotage has not been ruled out, insisting that the system could not have “malfunctioned”, and adding that the Ministry of Home Affairs was assisting the Board in its inquiries.

Signalling failure

The accident occurred when the Coromandel Express, travelling on the main line heading south, crashed into a freight train parked on a loop line at the Bahanaga Bazar station. The Yashwantpur-Howrah express, on the main line travelling north, then collided with some of the Coromandel Express’ derailed coaches.

While the Railways have now narrowed down the cause of the accident to signalling, they did not clarify whether the Coromandel Express first derailed on the main line and then hit the freight train parked on the loop line, or whether it had wrongly moved on to the loop line due to “signalling interference”, hit the freight train and then derailed.

Sandeep Mathur, principal executive director of signalling at the Railway Board explained that the electronic interlocking signal system works on two information points: a signal to pass is given based on which direction the track is set, and whether the track is free of obstruction. “As far as the digital record of what happened on that night, the signals sent out were all okay and as expected, but clearly the accident happened and now it has to be determined where the failure took place,” Ms. Sinha said, adding that the tracks are too mangled to even confidently identify which way the switch was pointing before the crash.  

‘Not in sync’

The electronic interlocking signalling system is controlled remotely in most cases. However, the controls reside in the section office of the railway station where they are supervised by signal men, section control officers, and section control heads; the station master is also privy to the details.

A senior Railway official said, “Interlocking malfunction is a big thing. There could be two things, either it was a sabotage or it was a software or a hardware malfunction, that is if the switching of tracks [to the loop line] happened despite signal being given for main line. This means that the signal and switching were not in sync.”

Also read: Odisha train accident | Data logger analysis to provide crucial evidence for rail probe

Got green signal: pilot

Ms. Sinha added that the first point of contact after the accident was with the locomotive pilot of the Coromandel Express. “He said that he had received the green signal for the main line and the train went on at top speed. The pilot is now in critical condition and in hospital.”

Watch | Odisha train tragedy kills over 200, hundreds injured

Given the time of night at which the train was passing through, it sped past as soon as it got the green signal and it would have been virtually impossible for the locomotive pilot to spot any kind of obstruction on the tracks, another senior official said. 

Officials added that they had also spoken with the locomotive pilot of the stationary freight train that was hit. “It is a miracle that his life was saved as he had gotten out of the train to take care of some maintenance work when the crash occurred,” Ms. Sinha said.

Restoration of services

She added that all rescue work had been finished at the accident site and that restoration work on the tracks had begun. “At least two of the main lines are expected to be operational by 8 p.m. today at the site,” Ms. Sinha said.  

The Railway Minister said that restoration had been taken up simultaneously along with the rescue operation which began immediately after the accident, telling journalists that normal services were expected to resume on Wednesday. “Now, the way restoration has picked up pace, the main line track has been completed and the overhead electric line and other works are going on,” Mr. Vaishnaw said.

Central helpline

The Railway Board appealed to members of the public to reach out to them on Central helpline number 139 for any information about the victims of the accident. “This is not a call centre. Our own officers are manning the lines. Each injured patient has one of our representatives and as soon as you call on the number we will do everything to connect you to your loved ones,” Ms. Sinha said, adding that the Railways would take care of all expenditure for families trying to get to their loved ones involved in the accident. 

Further, the ex-gratia payments — ₹50,000 for minor injuries, ₹2 lakh for serious injuries, and ₹10 lakh for kin of deceased — were being monitored from the central control room at Rail Bhawan. “So far, ₹3.2 crore in ex-gratia has been disbursed to around 285 claimants,” officials said, clarifying that there is no requirement to show a ticket or PNR number to claim this amount.

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