Signal Fault Identified in Odisha Rail Disaster: India's Worst Rail Accident of the Century


India's Minister of Railways has suggested that a signal fault, specifically a "change in electronic interlocking," may have caused the tragic rail accident in Odisha. While the cause and individuals responsible for the three-train collision have been identified, further details were not provided. The Railway Board of India has indicated that there was "some kind of signalling interference" rather than a failure. A comprehensive report on the accident, considered the country's most severe rail disaster of this century, is expected to be released soon. The death toll has been revised to 275 after some bodies were mistakenly counted twice. Many injured individuals have been discharged from hospitals, but some families are still searching for their missing loved ones.

In railway signalling, the electronic interlocking system is responsible for setting routes for trains within a specific area to ensure their safe movement. In this incident, a passenger train collided with a stationary goods train and derailed after being directed onto a loop track instead of the main line. The derailed carriages subsequently struck the rear carriages of another passenger train traveling in the opposite direction.

During a press conference, Jaya Verma Sinha from the Railway Board stated that both passenger trains had approached a station in Balasore district under a green signal, indicating it was safe, within seconds of each other and at the appropriate speed. The intended plan was for the trains to pass each other on the main lines, but the Coromandel Express collided with an iron ore-laden freight train on the loop line. As a result, the engine and some coaches lifted over the top of the heavy goods carriages. The passenger train bore the brunt of the impact, while the freight train remained unaffected.

Ms. Verma Sinha stated that there were no issues with the electronic interlocking system but suggested that investigations indicated some form of signalling interference rather than failure. The specific nature of this interference, whether manual, incidental, weather-related, due to wear and tear, or maintenance failure, will be determined by the inquiry.

Infrastructure expert Partha Mukhopadhyay noted that it should not be possible for green signals to display on the main line if the track is set for the loop. He emphasized that signal interlocking is meant to be fail-safe, and this level of failure is highly unusual.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the crash site and promised stringent punishment for those found guilty. The two passenger trains involved, the Coromandel Express traveling between Kolkata and Chennai, and the Howrah Superfast Express traveling from Yesvantpur to Howrah, were estimated to have carried around 2,000 passengers at the time of the accident.

Efforts are underway to identify the remaining unidentified bodies, with officials uploading pictures of the victims on government websites and conducting DNA testing if necessary. Rescue work has been completed, and the focus now is on clearing the wreckage and restoring train traffic.

India possesses one of the world's largest train networks, with millions of passengers relying on it daily. However, significant improvements are needed in the country's railway infrastructure. The deadliest train disaster in India occurred in 1981 during a cyclone in Bihar state when an overcrowded passenger train was blown off the tracks and into a river, resulting in approximately 800 fatalities.

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