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India blames train crash on signal failure as death toll nears 300

Narendra Modi vows to punish those responsible while opposition slams lack of rail investment

By AbrahamPublished 9 months ago 3 min read
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Indian authorities said preliminary findings showed a signal failure caused a train accident that killed nearly 300 people on Friday, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi vowed to punish those responsible. India’s railway minister, Ashwini Vaishnaw, said on Sunday that the government had “identified the cause of the incident and the people responsible for it”. Early findings suggested a failure in the “electronic interlocking” system, which controls the movement of trains, resulted in the three-way collision around Balasore station in the eastern state of Odisha.

One fast-moving passenger train, the southbound Coromandel Express, received an errant signal and moved on to a back-up track where it crashed into a stationary goods train, according to the government report. A third passenger train heading north then hit the derailed carriages.

The crash killed at least 275 people and injured more than 800, making it India’s worst railway accident in more than two decades. The rescue operation had been completed on Sunday evening, Pradeep Jena, chief secretary of Odisha, said.

“The government will leave no stone unturned in treating the injured,” Modi said during a visit to the site on Saturday. “Those found guilty will be punished severely.” Several opposition leaders blamed Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party for the accident, accusing the government of neglecting investment in rail safety in the region, and called on Vaishnaw to resign. The minister brushed off the demands, saying he was focused on the relief effort and that “this is not the time to do politics”.

The authorities had recommended that India’s Central Bureau of Investigation, which probes criminal cases, open an investigation into the accident, he said. Modi has prioritized upgrading the country’s massive rail network, parts of which are antiquated. The system dates back to the 19th century and plays a vital role in moving people and goods around the country with a population of 1.4bn.

Before the accident, Modi was due to inaugurate a new express train in western India on Saturday. However, an automated safety system introduced last year to prevent collisions had not yet been implemented on the eastern Indian route where Friday’s crash occurred. The country has had to grapple with a series of horrific train accidents. Friday’s case was the deadliest since 1995, when a crash in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh left more than 350 people dead. A train derailment in the same state killed more than 150 people in 2016.

A government study found that the number of accidents had fallen from more than 800 a year in the early 1970s to 22 in 2021. The most common cause of recent incidents was train derailment, according to a rail safety audit last year by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, which added that spending on track renewal had fallen since 2017.

The trains on Friday were full of migrant labourers and their families travelling between their homes in eastern states such as West Bengal and relatively prosperous southern cities including Chennai and Bengaluru, where many go in search of employment.

“I still can’t believe I survived,” passenger Brahma Das told the Times of India. “I had to crawl on the blood-soaked body of a passenger to get out of the train in the dark. I couldn’t see anything. There was smoke all around.”

Hundreds of rescue workers, volunteers and military personnel had worked through searing heat of at least 35C over the weekend to move the casualties and clear the tracks of debris. With hospitals and morgues overwhelmed, nearly 200 bodies were taken to a nearby school, where relatives from across India converged to track down missing loved ones.

“The bodies have started to decompose in the heat,” Choturam Chowdhury, who had come to the school from West Bengal to find two relatives who were heading to Chennai for work, told the Indian Express. “Many faces are not recognizable . . . I don’t know what I will say back home.”

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