DELHI — India’s prime minister was scheduled on Saturday to inaugurate a new high-speed train between Goa in southern India and the financial capital, Mumbai, as part of a campaign to modernize the country’s rail network — one of the largest in the world.
But on Friday night, a devastating three-train pileup in eastern India — one of the worst transportation disasters in the country’s history — killed 275 people and injured about 1,000, forcing Prime Minister Narendra Modi to cancel the ceremony. He visited the crash site and wounded patients at a nearby hospital instead.
On Sunday, the government revised the death toll from 288 to 275, after officials said some victims were counted twice.
India train crash rescue operation ends
The collision in India’s Odisha state, which threw passenger cars from the tracks, drew fresh scrutiny of the safety and viability of the 19th-century rail network, first built by the British. The system, which snakes across the country for more than 67,000 miles, now handles roughly 22 million passengers each day, according to government figures.
Railway officials said Sunday that the investigation into the Odisha collision was ongoing — but that early reports indicated problems with the railroad signals that instruct or warn drivers to stop, slow down or switch to another track.
“The preliminary report indicated some signaling fault, but I won’t comment on it until the report is submitted,” Jaya Varma Sinha, a member of the Railway Board, told reporters in a briefing.
“It is supposed to be tamper-proof, error-proof,” she said.
Railways Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw also said Sunday that the Railway Board recommended a probe by the country’s top investigative agency. In India’s history, two railway ministers have resigned immediately after train accidents with death tolls similar to that of the Odisha crash.
The tragedy unfolded Friday evening when the Coromandel Express, which was ferrying passengers from Howrah to Chennai on India’s eastern coast, took the wrong track and collided with a freight train near the Bahanaga Bazar station in Balasore, a district in Odisha. Soon after that, the Superfast Express running from Bangalore to Howrah crashed into the other two trains.
Modi, who faces a general election next year, has bet big on revamping India’s state-run railways. In recent years, his government has renovated train stations, introduced the Vande Bharat Express, the country’s first homegrown rail service, and promised to launch India’s first bullet train by 2026.
But some experts have warned that the emphasis on building faster and more modern trains could lead to more accidents if the rail network’s infrastructure isn’t upgraded or maintained at a similar pace.
“Safety should be [the] top priority — not speed,” said Prempal Sharma, a former member of the Railway Board, the executive body overseeing the railways.
Akhileshwar Sahay, a retired railways official who now works as a transportation consultant, said he hopes the accident will be an “eye-opener” to the Railways Ministry. “This accident gives us many messages. The first message is to change the … machinery, change the manpower, change the management ethos,” he said.
“The weakest link in the Indian Railways is the lack of safety orientation,” he said. “India wants to be a developed nation. Then, this railway has to be fighting fit. There is no shortcut.”
Railroad accidents have decreased here over time, with the two deadliest collisions occurring in the 1990s.
But in recent years, derailments caused most of the larger train accidents, government reports show. Between April 2017 and March 2021, train derailments were responsible for three-quarters of all major train accidents in India, according to a government audit, which blamed a general lack of track maintenance.
India train crash rescue operation ends
“To be fair, I do think we could spend more on safety,” said G. Raghuram, a railway operations expert and former director of the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore, adding that there is constant conflict between the desire to keep trains running for commercial gain and the need to stop services for railway maintenance.
Raghuram said that while new guards at railway crossings and new passenger cars have improved safety, the government could mitigate passenger injury by changing the interiors of the cars and focusing on getting large machinery to a crash site more quickly.
At the site of the accident Sunday, derailed cars lay overturned as authorities raced to clear the tracks. Mangled bodies covered in white sheets lay in rows in a room at a nearby school waiting to be recovered by families.
“Perhaps there is a need to look at this event in a larger perspective,” said a senior retired railways official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk freely. “Such large events make us rethink beyond the technical. Was there a failure or was there a larger thing we have to correct somewhere in the working of the system? Those are systemwide 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 recalled coming across videos about the government’s new anti-collision system on social media in the past.
“Back then I just assumed the government must have implemented it on the routes of important trains like the Coromandel Express,” Jha recalled. “Only after my accident did I find out that it had not.”
Masih reported from Seoul.