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India is investigating the cause of one of the worst train crashes in history

DELHI — India’s prime minister was due to inaugurate a new high-speed train between Goa in southern India and the financial capital Mumbai on Saturday, as part of a drive to upgrade the country’s rail network, one of the most great in the world.

But on Friday night a devastating three-train pileup in eastern India – one of the worst transport disasters in the country’s history – killed 275 people and injured around 1,000, forcing the prime minister Narendra Modi to cancel the ceremony. He instead visited the crash site and injured patients at a nearby hospital.

On Sunday, the government revised the death toll from 288 to 275, after officials said some victims had been double counted.

End of the rescue operation after a train accident in India

The collision in the Indian state of Odisha, which threw passenger cars off the tracks, has prompted renewed scrutiny of the safety and viability of the 19th century rail network, first built by the British. The system, which winds through the country for more than 67,000 miles, now handles around 22 million passengers every day, according to government figures.

Railway officials said on Sunday that the investigation into the Odisha collision was ongoing – but initial reports indicated problems with railway signals which order or warn drivers to stop, slow down or change lanes.

“The preliminary report indicated a signaling failure, but I will not comment until the report is submitted,” Board of Railways member Jaya Varma Sinha told reporters during a briefing.

“It’s supposed to be tamper-proof and infallible,” she said.

Railways Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw also said on Sunday that the Railways Board recommends an investigation by the country’s leading investigative agency. In Indian history, two railway ministers resigned immediately after train accidents with a death toll similar to that of the Odisha accident.

The tragedy unfolded on Friday evening when the Coromandel Express, which was carrying passengers from Howrah to Chennai on India’s east coast, took the wrong track and collided with a freight train near the railway station in Bahanaga Bazaar in Balasore, a district of Odisha. Shortly after, the Superfast Express from Bangalore to Howrah rammed the other two trains.

Modi, who faces a general election next year, has bet big on overhauling India’s state-owned railways. In recent years, his government has renovated railway stations, introduced the Vande Bharat Express, the country’s first rail service, and promised to launch India’s first high-speed train by 2026.

But some experts have warned that the focus on building faster, more modern trains could lead to more accidents if rail network infrastructure is not upgraded or kept at a similar pace.

“Security should be [the] top priority – not speed,” said Prempal Sharma, a former member of the Board of Railways, the executive body responsible for overseeing the railways.

Akhileshwar Sahay, a retired railway official who now works as a transport consultant, said he hopes the accident will be a “revelation” for the railway ministry. “This accident gives us a lot of messages. The first message is to change the… machines, change the workforce, change the management ethics,” he said.

“The weakest link in Indian Railways is the lack of safety orientation,” he said. “India wants to be a developed nation. Then this railway must be in shape. There is no shortcut.”

Rail accidents have declined here over time, with the two deadliest collisions occurring in the 1990s.

But in recent years, derailments have caused most of the biggest rail accidents, according to government reports. Between April 2017 and March 2021, train derailments were responsible for three-quarters of all major rail accidents in India, according to a government audit, which blamed a general lack of track maintenance.

End of the rescue operation after a train accident in India

“To be fair, I think we could spend more on safety,” said G. Raghuram, a rail operations expert and former director of the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore, adding that there is a constant conflict between the desire to keep trains running for commercial gain and the necessity of stopping services for the maintenance of the railways.

Raghuram said while new crossing guards and new passenger cars have improved safety, the government could alleviate passenger injuries by modifying car interiors and focusing on moving large machinery faster. at the accident site.

At the crash site on Sunday, derailed cars overturned as authorities rushed to clear the tracks. Mutilated bodies covered in white sheets lay in rows in a room at a nearby school waiting to be picked up by families.

“Perhaps there is a need to look at this event from a broader perspective,” said a retired senior railway official who spoke on condition of anonymity to speak freely. “Such big events make us rethink beyond the technical. Was there a failure or was there a bigger problem that we need to fix somewhere in the operation of the system? These are system-wide questions.

Pankaj Kumar Jha, a 36-year-old resident of Jajpur in Odisha who was traveling on one of the trains for work, managed to survive without injury. He recalls seeing videos of the government’s new anti-collision system on social media in the past.

“At the time, I assumed the government must have implemented it on major train routes like the Coromandel Express,” Jha recalls. “It was only after my accident that I found out that was not the case.”

Masih reported from Seoul.


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