The fog is lifting off the sequence of events that led to the deaths of more than 260 people in a three-train collision in Odisha’s Balasore district, with government sources stating that it was the Chennai-bound Coromandel Express that derailed first and rammed into a stationary good train. Some of its derailed coaches then knocked off the last four coaches of the Bengaluru-Howrah Superfast Yesvantpur Express which was passing on a parallel track. In fact, another few seconds and the Yesvantpur Express would have narrowly escaped the accident.
The horrific collision was reported around 7pm near the Bahanaga Bazar station in Balasore district, around 250km south of Kolkata and 170km north of Bhubaneswar.
With the death toll feared to rise, several questions are being asked in the aftermath of the third and deadliest Coromandel Express crash in two decades – did a signalling system error or human error lead to the accident? Did the Coromandel Express have the much touted Kavach protection system? If it did, could the crash have been averted? What made the impact so catastrophic?
News18 takes a deep dive into some of the critical aspects of the Odisha train accident.
Sequence of Events
Bahanaga Bazar is a roadside railway station with three platforms and four tracks, of which two are the main operational ‘up line’ and ‘down line’ and two others are ‘up loop’ and ‘down loop’ lines on the either side of the main lines.
The 12841 Shalimar-Chennai Central Coromandel Express was supposed to pass on the main ‘up line’ while the Howrah-bound 12864 Yesvantpur Express was supposed to pass on the main ‘down line’. Bahanaga Bazar is not a stop for either of these trains. To allow for both these superfast trains to pass through the station, the assistant station manager, who managed the signal panel, decided to stop two goods train on the two loop lines.
Accordingly, one goods train was reportedly halted on the ‘up loop’ line heading towards Bhadrak district and another goods train was halted on the ‘down loop’ line. After this, the signalling system was changed to green to allow the two passenger trains to pass through.
Coromandel Express Rams Into Goods Train: As per the initial probe conducted by the South Eastern Railways, the Coromandel Express was supposed to pass through when the ‘up line’ signal was turned to green, but due to alleged “failure” of the Route Relay Interlocking (RRI) system, the train, which was coming in at a permissible speed of 128 km per hour, took a left turn at facing point number 17A where it barrelled into the rear of the stationary goods train.
The impact was such that 15 coaches of the Coromandel Express derailed – seven turned turtle and four tumbled off the track on top of other coaches. The derailed coaches include two AC two-tier coaches, A1 & A2, one high capacity parcel (HCP) coach and one luggage break & generator (EOG) coach.
Yesvantpur Express Slams In: Some of the derailed coaches of the Coromandel Express spilled over to the main ‘down line’ on which the Yesvantpur Express was passing. The last four coaches of the latter derailed due to the impact. Officials say the Yesvantpur Express would have safely exited the accident site had the first Coromandel Express accident taken place a few seconds later.
Why is the Death Toll So High?
A look at the coach positioning of the Coromandel Express shows its first three coaches are unreserved – one seating-cum-luggage rake (SLR) and two general sitting (GS) coaches.
These are the coaches in which poor passengers, usually in the hundreds, travel regularly. It’s these three coaches, packed to the hilt, that suffered the maximum impact and damage in Friday’s collision.
What Caused the Accident?
Sources say the initial probe by the South Eastern Railways (SER) points to signalling system failure or human error. This theory, however, has been questioned by retired railways officers who once handled train operations. One of them, on condition of anonymity, told News18 that the Route Relay Interlocking (RRI) system never allows such complete failure.
He explained that once the loop line is activated to take a train and the said train is made stationary, the facing point that allows such cross movements must have been put into released mode. If that is done, the facing point will never allow an incoming train to enter the same loop line from behind, he added.
The question then arises — did the assistant station manager forget to release the facing point after receiving the goods train on the ‘up loop’ line? If that were the case, the RRI system would have automatically put all the signals in the red. But this didn’t happen on Friday night.
The primary probe conducted by the SER indicates that both the inbound signals were green. So the loco pilot of the Coromandel Express, after getting the green signal and the licence to enter the station and pass through it, ran the train at a speed of 128 kmph, got diverted, entered the loop line and rammed into the stationary goods train.
Human Error? Initial inputs had also alleged major human error on the part of the assistant station manager, speculating that he put on the green signal and after realising that the facing point was not released, tried to reverse the action and change the signal to red. The theory suggests that the corrective action was too late as the Coromandel Express had entered the loop line by then. Experts have also punched holes in this speculated version, saying the RRI system is so robust and reliable that it was not possible for the assistant station manager to perform two consecutive mistakes on it.
Probe Ordered: The Railway Ministry has ordered a probe into the train accident to be led by AM Chowdhary, Commissioner Railway Safety, South East Circle. The Commissioner Railway Safety comes under the Ministry of Civil Aviation. The Commissioner of Railways Safety, SER has also started an enquiry as per protocol.
No Kavach: News18 learnt that none of the trains involved in the collision were equipped with Kavach, the automatic train collision protection system tested by Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw himself along with Chairman of the Railway Board in March 2022. Kavach is designed to bring a train to a halt automatically when it notices another train or any manual error like “jumping” of the red signal or any other malfunction on the same line within a prescribed distance.
Safety of LHB Coaches: Both superfast passenger trains had Linke Hofmann Busch or LHB coaches. The passenger coaches, developed by Linke-Hofmann-Busch of Germany and mostly produced in the Rail Coach Factory in Punjab’s Kapurthala, have been in use since 2000 and are considered safer than the older Integral Coach Factory coaches. But the image of the S2 coach of Coromandel Express pinning down the S1 coach has led to questions on the safety features of the German-engineered LHB coaches.
The 2010 Accident
A similar tragedy had occurred in West Bengal in 2010 when the Jnaneswari Express derailed near Khemashuli in Jhargram district on the intervening night of May 28 and 29 after Naxals removed the fishplates of the rail tracks. Within 65 seconds, a goods train from the opposite direction rammed into the derailed coaches, resulting in the death of 148 passengers.
Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has declared one-day state mourning on Saturday in the wake of the deadly triple train crash. All government and private hospitals have been put on alert in the nearby districts, including the AIIMS at Bhubaneswar. Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw said the Air Force has been called in for assisting the rescue operations.
The Railways announced an ex-gratia of Rs 10 lakh for the next of kin of the deceased, Rs 2 lakh for those grievously injured and Rs 50,000 for those who got minor injuries.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, too, expressed his distress over the accident, and announced an additional ex-gratia of Rs 2 lakh for the next of kin of the deceased and Rs 50,000 for the injured from the PM’s National Relief Fund (PMNRF).