Indian train accident: Cause and culprits identified, says Railway Minister

New Delhi/London/Hong Kong

The cause of the train crash that killed hundreds of people in India – and those responsible for it – have been identified, India’s railway minister said on Sunday.

Ashwini Vaishnav said Friday’s three-way accident involving two passenger trains and a freight train in eastern Odisha state was due to a “change in electronic interlocking” – a reference to the signaling system used by the railways. “Who is to blame for that mistake.”

“Let the inquiry report come out. But the cause has been identified and those responsible have been identified,” he told Indian news agency ANI.

However, he declined to divulge further details, saying “it is not appropriate to say anything at this time”.

“Let the whole matter be investigated by the proper investigating authorities,” he added.

The news came as authorities on Sunday shifted their focus from searching for people to clearing the wreckage, as hopes of finding more survivors from India’s worst train disaster began to fade.

“All 21 coaches derailed at Pahanaka Bazar station have been derailed. Now the site is being cleared,” the State Railway Department Press Information Bureau said in a statement on Sunday.

“The goal is to have a complete, normal state by Wednesday morning,” Vaishnav said, adding that “we have mobilized a lot of resources.”

More than 1,000 workers, seven excavators, two accident relief trains and four railway and road cranes were involved in the rescue operation at the accident site in Balasore.

On Sunday, the death toll in the disaster was brought down to 275 – down from 288 – with Odisha state chief secretary Pradeep Jena saying there was a mistake in counting some bodies twice.

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According to India’s Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya, who arrived in the state on Sunday morning, the number of injured is over a thousand, and more than 100 patients require intensive care.

Specialist doctors, special equipment and medicines have been flown in from the Indian capital of Mandavia.

However, hopes of finding more survivors are dwindling. “We will pull up the coaches one by one, but we are not very confident of finding survivors,” Sudanshu Sarangi, director general of fire services for Odisha, told Indian news agency ANI on Saturday.

Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik on Sunday announced 500,000 rupees ($6,067) to the kin of the dead and 100,000 rupees ($1,213) to those seriously injured.

“All possible steps have been taken to save the lives of the injured passengers at various hospitals,” Patnaik said in a statement issued by Odisha’s Information and Public Relations Department.

State officials said a special train service would be run on Sunday to transport the survivors and dead bodies from Odisha.

The train runs to Chennai in South Tamil Nadu stopping at all major stations and a parcel carriage is attached to carry the bodies of the deceased.

Who is Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi? Visited the siteA Saturday tweet praised local authorities and rescue efforts.

“I appreciate Railways, NDRF (National Disaster Response Force), ODRAF (Odisha Disaster Rapid Response Force), local authorities, police department, fire brigade, volunteers and every person working tirelessly on the ground. Strengthening rescue operations. I am proud of their commitment,” he said.

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World leaders including Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Russian President Vladimir Putin, US President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida have expressed condolences over the past two days.

French President Emmanuel Macron, Pakistani Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif and Australian Foreign Minister Benny Wong have also expressed their condolences.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was “deeply saddened by the loss of life and injury,” his spokesman said.

Pope Francis was “deeply saddened to learn of the enormous loss of life,” a Vatican statement said.

Modi thanked the world leaders for their messages.

“Their kind words can give strength to grieving families. Thanks for their support,” Modi tweeted on Saturday.

India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar soon shared a similar message, tweeting, “Deep thanks to global partners for their messages of sympathy on the train accident in Odisha. Their unity is a source of strength in this time of grief.

The worst train accident in India’s history has raised questions about the safety of the country’s massive and aging rail network, as the government invests in modernizing it.

India’s extensive railway network, the largest in the world, was built 160 years ago under British colonial rule. Today, about 11,000 trains run every day over 67,000 miles in the world’s most populous country.

A senior state railway official had earlier told CNN that they suspect a malfunctioning traffic signal may have caused the accident.

The Coromandel Express heading towards Chennai from Shalimar collided with the goods train, derailing several coaches on the opposite track, the official said. The Howrah Express, which was traveling in the opposite direction from Yeswantpur, collided with the overturned coaches at high speed.

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A station superintendent in Odisha told CNN that as traffic signals are often handled by personnel at each station, signaling failure can occur due to technical glitches or human error.

Decaying infrastructure is often cited as a reason for traffic delays and countless train accidents in India. Although government statistics show that accidents and derailments have been on the decline in recent years, they are still sadly common.

More than 16,000 people were killed in 18,000 train accidents across the country in 2021. According to National Crime Records, the majority of rail accidents – 67.7% – were caused by falls from trains and collisions between trains and people on the track. Train-to-train collisions are rare.

Improving India’s transport infrastructure is a top priority for Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his bid to create a $5 trillion economy by 2025. In the fiscal year that began in April, Modi’s government boosted capital spending on airports, road and highway construction and other infrastructure projects. $122 billion or 1.7% of its GDP.

A significant portion of that spending is aimed at introducing high-speed trains on its notoriously fast railways. India’s new budget earmarks $29 billion for railway development, according to business-strategy firm Albright Stonebridge Group.

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