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India: Cause of train crash in Odisha 'identified'

Published June 4, 2023last updated June 4, 2023

The railway minister said an issue in the electronic signal system likely caused the accident, but said more would be revealed in a final report. At least 275 people died, making it India's worst train crash in decades.

Rescuers work at the site of a train collision in Balasore district of eastern Indian state of Odisha
The devastating crash near the city of Balasore in eastern India is the country's worst in decadesImage: Javed Dar/Xinhua/IMAGO

The cause of India's devastating train accident, which killed at least 275 people, has been identified, as well as those responsible for it, India's railway minister said on Sunday.

The three-train crash took place near the city of Balasore in the eastern Indian state of Odisha on Friday night. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the crash site on Saturday and vowed a thorough probe.

Indian Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw said the country's worst train crash in decades was owed to the "change that occurred during electronic interlocking." The technical term refers to a complex signal system that arranges the movement of trains on the track to prevent them from colliding.

Vaishnaw added that it was "not appropriate" to give more details on the causes of the crash before a final investigation report.

Hundreds remain in hospital

Authorities said they completed rescue operations at the crash site and that the death toll, which was revised down from 288 after some bodies were counted twice, was unlikely to rise much further.

More than 900 people had been discharged from the hospital while 260 were still being treated, with one patient in critical condition, the Odisha state government said.

Railway board member Jaya Varma Sinha said the drivers of both passenger trains were injured but survived.

At one of the hospitals some 15 kilometers (9 miles) from the site, survivors spoke of the horror of the crash.

Pantry worker Inder Mahato was stuck in the bathroom of one of the trains for hours before being rescued.

"God saved me," he said, recuperating from a hairline fracture in his sternum. "I am very lucky I am alive."

Mahato's friends weren't so lucky. Four of them died in the crash, he said.

Bulti Khatun roamed outside the same hospital in a dazed state, holding an identity card of her husband who was on board one of the trains.

Khatun said she visited the morgue and other hospitals to look for him but was unable to find him.

"I am so helpless," she told The Associated Press.

India train crash caused by signal error, officials say

What do we know about the cause?

An issue with the electronic signaling system led a train to wrongly change tracks, Vaishnaw said.

"Who has done it and what is the reason will come out of an investigation," he added in an interview with New Delhi Television network.

There is ongoing confusion over the sequence of events that led to the three-train crash.

Local reports suggest that the high-speed passenger train Coromandel Express received a signal to enter the main track line. The signal was later pulled back, with the train entering an adjacent loop line instead, crashing into the second train, which was carrying goods.

The impact caused several carriages on the first passenger train to flip onto another track, where an incoming third train, the passenger line Yesvantpur-Howrah Express, struck it.

The two passenger trains were carrying over 2,000 people.

Signaling error faulted in India train disaster: DW reports

Vaishnaw said the focus at the moment was to restore rail services, which is aimed to be back to normal by Wednesday morning.

Former minister says crash could have been averted

Modi's government is facing heavy criticism from opposition politicians over the deadly accident. Social media posts under official updates on the crash called for Railway Minister Vaishnaw to resign from his post.

Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal and a former railway minister, said the accident could have been averted if an anti-collision device introduced during her tenure was installed.

Speaking during a visit to the scene of the crash on Saturday, the opposition politician called for giving India's railway network special care, the Hindustan Times reported.

"I feel a coordination gap has surfaced, as the railway did not get special treatment. The railway ministry does not even have a separate budget," the newspaper quoted her as saying.

Vaishnaw addressed Mamata's comments on Sunday.

He said the anti-collision system Mamata had referenced had "nothing to do" with the cause of Friday's clash, adding that his predecessor spoke as "per her limited knowledge."

The accident happened as the government seeks to modernize the rail network, much of which was built during British colonial rule.

Despite government efforts to improve safety and upgrade the railway infrastructure, several hundred accidents occur every year. This invites questions about the efficacy of the introduced upgrades.

mm, rmt, mk/rs (AFP, AP)

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