How Ashwini Vaishnaw Led from the Front for 50+ Hours


Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw has been camped in Odisha – the site of a triple train collision which claimed at least 275 lives and injured more than 1,100 passengers – for more than 50 hours now. His work on the rescue and relief operations, however, started much before that at the Delhi airport.

Vaishnaw had just landed in Goa for the launch of the Vande Bharat train from Panjim to Mumbai on Friday evening when his phone started buzzing a little after 7pm to inform him about what had unfolded in Balasore district of Odisha. Two passenger trains – the 12864 Bengaluru-Howrah Superfast Express and the 12841 Shalimar-Chennai Central Coromandel Express – and a goods train had been involved in a collision.

The Railway Minister and his team immediately took the same flight back to Delhi. The first flight available to Odisha was at 4am on Saturday. Vaishnaw decided to wait at the Delhi airport all the while supervising relief and rescue operations at the site. He was finally able to board a chartered flight at 3am.

A sleepless night gave way to a restless morning when Vaishnaw reached ground zero near Bahanagar Bazar railway station. Taking full charge of the operations after hours of supervising remotely, the Railway Minister swung into action and took stock of the damage personally, navigating mangled and protruding pieces of wreckage.

He guided top railway officials at the site on relief efforts and ordered an investigation to be led by AM Chowdhary, Commissioner Railway Safety, South East Circle.

His team, meanwhile, briefed Prime Minister Narendra Modi and top government functionaries on the accident. After accompanying PM Modi at the accident site and the hospital where they interacted with injured passengers, Vaishnaw returned to ‘ground zero’ and cleared the air on the sequence of events that unfolded on Friday night.

He explained that it was the Coromandel Express that derailed and hit the stationary goods train and then the Bengaluru-Howrah Yesvantpur Express, and that it was not a head-on collision between three trains. He made it clear that rescue and relief operations and track restoration efforts were his priority in that order and not responding to Opposition’s demands of resignation.

As rescue operations started wrapping up towards Saturday evening, Vaishnaw, as planned, announced that one ‘down line’ railway track would be operational within 12 hours.

Spending the entire day on the spot himself, he directed railway officials to rotate their shifts so that they got some rest. Late in the evening, he took a break at the insistence of his team and officials. He left the accident site around midnight, post which he discussed the next day’s strategy with Union Cabinet colleague Dharmendra Pradhan.

He was back at the accident spot at 7am on Sunday. His persistence and the hard work of railway workers and officials paid off when the first train chugged out of the affected section around 10:40pm that day, 51 hours after the horrific crash. Vaishnaw saw off a goods train carrying coal and headed towards Rourkela Steel plant from Vizag port.

“Down-line restoration complete. First train movement in section,” he tweeted. Barely two hours after the restoration of the downline, the up line was also restored. An empty goods train was the first train to run on the up line of the accident-affected section.

“Three trains have left from the section (two down and one up) and we have planned to run around seven tonight. We have to take this entire section towards normalisation,” he said.

In a visibly emotional moment, he added: “Our objective is to ensure that all the missing persons’ family members find them as soon as possible. Our responsibility is not over yet.”

Vaishnaw’s active leadership in the aftermath of one of India’s deadliest train accidents is a far cry from the photo-ops of the past. No Railway Minister had camped out at the site of an accident for 50 hours as Vaishnaw has. His presence ensured there were no delays in the relief efforts and resulted in smooth cooperation between different agencies and departments.

It is perhaps fate that Vaishnaw, an IIT-Kanpur graduate who cracked the civil services and joined the Odisha cadre as a young IAS officer, proved his mettle in Balasore where he was once posted as District Collector. It is in this post that he received a call from Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s PMO to join as director.

This is not the first time Vaishnaw has mobilised and directed large-scale relief work. What caught the PMO’s eye during Vajpayee’s tenure was the rescue and rebuilding efforts put in by Vaishnaw after a devastating typhoon in Balasore. Involving Panchayats and local communities, Vaishnaw oversaw the reconstruction of almost all houses that were destroyed with no allegations of corruption and delay.

After joining the PMO, Vaishnaw’s commitment saw him become the private secretary to Vajpayee. He continued in the post even when Vajpayee resigned as PM. In 2007, he went on to join the Indian Port Trust, but resigned later. He then did a management course in the US and joined the private sector.

He was pulled back into governance and public service when PM Modi, who had seen his work, asked the technocrat to join his team. When he took charge of the Railway Ministry, Vaishnaw had made it clear that only those who were willing to put in hard work should join him. Incharge of three ministries – Railways, Communications, Electronics & Information Technology – Vaishnaw is used to working round the clock. But with his 50-hour vigil on ground zero, he has shown the way to successors.


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