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Signal failure led to India’s deadly train crash, officials say


Indian authorities on Sunday completed rescue operations after the country’s deadliest rail crash in more than two decades, with signal failure emerging as the likely cause of an accident that killed at least 275 people.

The death toll from Friday night’s crash was revised down from 288 after it was found that some bodies had been counted twice, said Pradeep Jena, chief secretary of the eastern state of Odisha.

The tally was unlikely to rise, he told reporters. “Now the rescue operation is complete.”

Nearly 1,200 people were injured 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.

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

Crash with freight train on loop track

A preliminary investigation indicated the Coromandel Express, heading to Chennai from Kolkata, moved out of the main track and entered a loop track — a side track used to park trains — at 128 km/h, crashing into the freight train parked on the loop track, said Railway Board member Jaya Varma Sinha.

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 km/h on the second main track, she told reporters.

This caused those two coaches to jump the tracks and result in the massive pileup, Sinha said. Trains that carry goods are often parked on an adjacent loop line so the main line is clear for a passing train.

The passenger trains, carrying 2,296 people, were not overspeeding, she said.

The drivers of both those trains were injured but survived, she said.

Rescuers work to remove the bodies of victims of the accident on Saturday night. (Rafiq Maqbool/The Associated Press)

India’s deadliest train crash in more than two decades has renewed questions over the safety of the country’s vast railway network. Many are asking why long-promised anti-collision devices, which prevent crashes using automatic brakes, are installed on very few train lines.

Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, who was at the site on Sunday, rejected the idea that such a device would have made a difference. He said it was a “change in electronic interlocking” that caused the crash, an error in electronic signals that may have sent one of the high-speed trains onto the wrong track.

The computer-controlled track management system, or “interlocking system,” is supposed to direct a train to an empty track at the point where two tracks meet.

WATCH | Officials believe crash caused by signal error

Indian train crash caused by signal error, railway officials say

Ashwini Vaishnaw, India’s railway minister, says investigators found the cause of the deadly train crash to be a change in the signalling system. He further explains that the electronic signals may have sent one of the high-speed trains onto the wrong track.

Vaishnaw said only a full investigation will reveal how the signal was sent and what exactly went wrong. Sinha said a detailed investigation will reveal whether the error was human or technical.

The system is suspected to have malfunctioned and should not have allowed the Coromandel Express to take the loop track, Sinha said.

State-run Indian Railways, which says it transports more than 13 million people every day, has been working to improve its patchy safety record, blamed on aging infrastructure.

Plans to reopen tracks by Wednesday

Workers with heavy machinery were at the site on Sunday to clear the damaged track, wrecked trains and electric cables, as distraught relatives looked on.

More than 1,000 people were involved in the rescue, the Railway Ministry said on Twitter.

Rescue workers stand near a train collision.
Onlookers and rescue workers are seen on Saturday next to damaged coaches after the collision in Balasore, India. (Nantu Samui/Reuters)

“The target is by Wednesday morning the entire restoration work is complete and tracks should be working,” Vaishnaw said.

At a business centre where bodies were being taken for identification, dozens of relatives waited, many weeping and clutching identification cards and pictures of missing loved ones.

Kanchan Choudhury, 49, was searching for her husband. Five people from her village were on the train, four of them being treated for injuries. Her husband was found dead, she said, weeping as she waited to claim compensation, carrying her and her husband’s identity cards.

Work to identify victims continues

Other family members waited at a school converted into a makeshift morgue on Sunday where they were given the painful task of trying to identify relatives by looking at photos of passengers who were on the express trains. 

Families of the dead will get one million rupees ($16,000 Cdn) in compensation, while the seriously injured will get 200,000 rupees, with 50,000 rupees for minor injuries, Vaishnaw said on Saturday.

Pope Francis, U.S. President Joe Biden, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and French President Emmanuel Macron have expressed condolences.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who faces an election due next year, visited the scene on Saturday to talk to rescue workers, inspect the wreckage and meet some of the injured.

“Those found guilty will be punished stringently,” Modi said.


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