The horrific train accident in Balasore comes as a major challenge to Railway Minister Ashwani Vaishnaw who rushed to the site early Saturday morning and is now personally overseeing the rescue and relief efforts in an area where he was once posted as a District Collector.
This is the worst train accident in India in a long time with the death toll nearing 300 and many more injured, and the first-such incident where three trains have been involved in the accident, putting a question mark on the safety aspect of the Indian Railways.
Vaishnaw was scheduled to be in Goa for the launch of the Vande Bharat train from Mumbai to Goa on Saturday, but rushed to Balasore after hearing of the Odisha train accident late on Friday. The Vande Bharat launch was eventually cancelled. Vaishnaw is likely to camp in Balasore and coordinate with rescue efforts of the state government and the NDRF.
The minister said a high-level inquiry will be conducted and the government wants to get to the bottom of the accident. But the Congress has started circulating an earlier video of Vaishnaw and questioning if the anti-collision devices (Kavach) in trains have been widely installed and if these could have averted the accident.
In the video, Vaishnaw is seen explaining this system to an audience and how he himself took a “risk” and travelled in the engine of a train that came to a halt automatically 400 meters ahead of another train approaching it on the same track.
Opposition leaders like BRS leader KT Rama Rao and AAP MP Sandeep Pathak also questioned the lack of anti-collision devices, with Pathak saying that as a member of the Railways Standing Committee, he had raised the issue of safety and how “anti-derailment and anti-collision mechanism” was not present in all trains.
However, it has also emerged that the Coromandel Express was running at a high-speed of 130 km/hour and collided into the derailed Yesvantpur Express in a span of a few minutes, leaving little time for the accident to be averted.
Hours before the accident on Friday, the Indian Railways held a two-day ‘Chintan Shivir’ in Delhi with 400 railways officials from across the country in attendance, where safety was an important topic of discussion.
In his concluding speech on Friday evening, Vaishnaw said: “Detailed suggestions have come at this shivir… lot of emphasis has been given on safety and the good record, and how to make this absolutely the best record in the world.”
Earlier in August 2017, then railway minister Suresh Prabhu had offered to resign after two train accidents in quick succession that killed two dozen people, and took “moral responsibility” for the same. Prabhu was shifted in September that year to the Commerce Ministry and ultimately dropped from the Cabinet in 2019.
Vaishnaw was incidentally posted in Balasore as a District Collector nearly two decades ago when he was an IAS officer from the Odisha cadre.