This story originally appeared in Peoples Dispatch on June 5, 2023. It is shared here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 (CC BY-SA) license.

At least 275 people have died following a horrific train accident in the Balasore district of the Indian State of Odisha on Friday, June 2. Over a 1,000 people were also injured in what is being called the worst rail accident in 20 years. As the country recovers from the shock, questions are being asked about the government’s policies towards the railways.

The accident involved three trains. On the evening of June 2, the Coromandel Express, a passenger train, rammed a stationary goods train that had been parked in the Loop Line of the Bahanaga Bazar railway station. According to a preliminary investigation, 21 coaches of the Coromandel Express derailed and some overturned, including on to the adjoining track.

Just minutes later, another passenger train, the Yesvantpur-Howrah Superfast Express coming from Bengaluru hit the derailed compartments of the Coromandel Express, and itself derailed, becoming what is called “a wreck on a wreck.” Both trains had an estimated 2,000 passengers on board.

Issues with the signaling system

On June 4, Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw stated the root cause of the collision had happened due to a change in the electronic interlocking, which is a signaling system to ensure route safety for trains. He added that the people responsible had been identified.

Subsequently, he added that the Railway Board had recommended an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), identifying a “signaling interference” as the main cause of the accident.

The preliminary investigation found that the Coromandel Express had initially been given the “green signal” to pass through the Up Main Line (heading towards Chennai).  However this signal was then taken off, following which the train moved into the Loop Line (which are lines constructed around station areas to accommodate trains ease operations). It then collided with the goods train.

Coromandel was not scheduled to stop at the Bahanaga station and it is not known why the green signal was taken off. It is also not clear whether the signal was displaying “red” or “green” when the Coromandel Express crossed it.

Balasore and neighboring areas were the site of a massive rescue effort as local residents joined National Disaster Response Force and fire department personnel. Meanwhile, distressing videos circulated on social media revealed a close-up of the tragedy.

Heartbreaking scenes have emerged out of Odisha of relatives searching for their loved ones amid the chaos, as piles of bodies were laden on trucks and in open halls. According to news reports, the local Bahanaga high school was turned into a makeshift morgue, while local hospitals struggled to accommodate patients.

The State and Central governments have since then announced ex-gratia payments. Alongside the looming CBI probe, the Odisha Police have also filed charges of “causing death by negligence and endangering life,” however the case does not name any specific individuals as of now.

The Indian Railways is one of the country’s most important institutions, employing over 1.1 million people. It is the fourth biggest railway network in the world and the second largest in size if we consider passenger miles. While the Balasore train accident is the worst India has seen for many years in terms of its sheer scale, the Indian Railways have continued to witness routine accidents, both “consequential” (entailing serious repercussions including loss of human life) and otherwise.

This brings to the fore the structural issues that have continued to plague the railway system and which have become a key issue in this context. In a letter from February, seen by news publication ThePrint, the principal chief operating manager of the South Western Railway zone had warned of “serious flaws” in the signaling system, adding that if the maintenance system was not corrected, it could lead to “re-occurrence and serious accidents”.

“Anything of this nature happening in one zone raises eyebrows everywhere,” an anonymous senior railway official stated in the news report. 

Incomplete safety inquiries

The Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) published a report in 2022 for the year ending March 2021. A section of the report stated, “Investigation of factors responsible for derailments conducted by the Inquiry Committees is an important exercise, which highlights the main factors responsible for the accidents.”

According to the report, the Zonal Railways (ZR) did not adhere to the timeline prescribed by the Railway Board for completing inquiries in 49% of the derailment cases. It also revealed that the Indian Railways neglected workforce vacancies and managed them through nominal outsourcing. This lack of proper staffing in the safety category compromised the railways’ vision of achieving accident-free, collision-free, and fire-free train operations.

The report revealed that track inspections were conducted in only 181 cases out of the required total of 350, indicating that over 50% of the mandatory track safety inspections were neglected. Furthermore, the data shows that out of the total 217 accidents between the years 2017 and 2021, 75% were caused by derailments. Additionally, there were 211 accidents attributed to signal failure. The report also acknowledged that essential safety measures were being disregarded, while funds were being allocated to non-priority projects instead of investing in rail safety.

Staff shortage

Just two days before the accident, The Hindu published a report highlighting how the shortage of staff in Indian Railways was leading to major accidents. For instance, in the South East Central Railway, 35.99% of loco pilots had duty shifts exceeding 12 hours in March, 34.53% in April, and 33.26% during the first half of May.

For the year 2023, over 312,000 posts in the Indian Railways remained vacant. The failure to fill these positions has resulted in employees working overtime. A 29-year-old employee, working at the Central Railway ticket booking office in Mumbai, told The Hindu, “I have been working double shifts for up to 16 hours continuously as we don’t have enough staff to relieve us.“

Political parties in India condemned the failure to address many of these underlying structural issues. Communist Party of India (Marxist) General Secretary noted that a task force formed in 2017 had pointed out the urgent need for track renewals. However, in the 2022 budget, the allocation for track renewal was cut by 14%. He also called out the government for the vacancies of the position of gangmen, who monitor tracks for any loose bolts.

He warned against the CBI probe being used to divert attention from some of these issues.

Many observers also criticized the government’s focus on publicity campaigns boasting of super-fast trains while basic safety issues remained unresolved. Sitaram Yechury urged the government to focus on providing facilities for people to travel rather than on high-speed trains which only the rich can access.

Opposition leader Jairam Ramesh tweeted that “rail safety & track renewals have taken a backseat, while high-profile inaugurations & an obsession with speed get priority.”

His party, the Indian National Congress, and other political leaders demanded the resignation of Rail Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw.

(With inputs from Umer Beigh, Hrishi Raj Anand and Tanupriya Singh)

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