Indian Railway Minister Suggests Signal Fault as Likely Cause of Odisha Rail Disaster
India’s railway minister, Ashwini Vaishnaw, has indicated that a signal fault may have led to the deadly three-train crash in eastern India, with a “change in electronic interlocking” as the probable cause. Vaishnaw did not provide further details regarding the cause or the individuals responsible for the incident. The Railway Board of India stated that there had been “some kind of signalling interference” rather than a failure in the system. A comprehensive report on the accident, considered to be the country’s worst rail disaster of the century, is expected to be released soon.
Authorities have revised the death toll down to 275 after discovering that some bodies were counted twice. Of the 1,175 injured individuals transported to hospitals, 793 have been discharged, while families continue to search for missing loved ones.
In railway signalling, the electronic interlocking system is responsible for setting routes for each train in a specific area, ensuring the safe movement of trains along the track. The crash occurred when a passenger train collided with a stationary goods train and derailed after being incorrectly directed onto a loop track adjacent to the main line. The derailed carriages subsequently struck the rear carriages of a second passenger train traveling in the opposite direction.
During a press conference, Jaya Verma Sinha from the Railway Board explained that both passenger trains approached the Balasore district station under a green signal, indicating it was safe, within seconds of each other and at the correct speed of under 130 kph (81 mph). The passenger trains were meant to pass each other on the main lines, but the Coromandel Express crashed into an iron ore-laden freight train on the loop line, causing the engine and some coaches to lift over the heavy goods carriages. The freight train remained unaffected and undisturbed.
Ms. Verma Sinha emphasized that there was “no issue with the electronic interlocking system” and preliminary investigations suggested “some kind of a signalling interference” rather than a failure. The exact cause of the interference, whether manual, incidental, weather-related, related to wear and tear, or due to maintenance failure, will be determined by the ongoing inquiry.
Infrastructure expert Partha Mukhopadhyay expressed surprise at the level of failure, stating that green signals should not appear on the main line if the track is set for the loop. He emphasized that signal interlocking is designed to be failsafe, making this level of failure unprecedented.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the crash site on Saturday and assured stringent punishment for those found guilty. It is estimated that approximately 2,000 people were aboard the two passenger trains, the Coromandel Express traveling between Kolkata and Chennai, and the Howrah Superfast Express traveling from Yesvantpur to Howrah, at the time of the crash on Friday evening.
According to Odisha state official Pradeep Jena, at least 187 bodies remain unidentified. Authorities have been uploading pictures of the victims on government websites and will conduct DNA testing if necessary. Rescue operations were completed on Saturday, and efforts are underway to clear the wreckage and resume train traffic.
While India boasts one of the world’s largest train networks with millions of passengers traveling daily, a significant portion of its railway infrastructure requires improvement. During this time of year, trains in India can become extremely crowded, as more people travel during school holidays.
The country’s worst train disaster occurred in 1981 when an overcrowded passenger train was swept off the tracks and into a river during a cyclone in Bihar state, resulting in the deaths of approximately 800 people.