Odisha train accident: CBI probe may look at error in interlocking system, sabotage

By, Debabrata Mohanty, New Delhi/balasore
Jun 06, 2023 12:37 AM IST

CBI will look at all possible reasons behind the horrific three-train crash in Odisha’s Balasore district last week, officials said.

The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) will look at all possible reasons behind the horrific three-train crash in Odisha’s Balasore district last week, including human error and sabotage, a senior officer said on Monday, as railway authorities expanded their probe and questioned the assistant station master and drivers of the two trains to ascertain how the worst rail accident in nearly three decades occurred.

A worker inspects the newly restored track, in Odisha’s Balasore district on Monday. (AFP)
A worker inspects the newly restored track, in Odisha’s Balasore district on Monday. (AFP)

Preliminary investigation by the railways identified a change in the interlocking and point machine, an intricate system of interconnected safety checks designed to keep trains from crossing each other’s paths, as the reason for the accident involving the Chennai-bound Coromandel Express, the Howrah-bound Yesvantpur Express, and a freight train.

“However, CBI will look at all the angles, including human error, deliberate attempt to derail the Coromandel Express, and any external factors,” said the officer cited above, requesting anonymity.

The accident occurred at Bahanaga Bazar station in Odisha’s Balasore around 6.56pm on Friday, when the Coromandel Express rammed into a goods train bearing iron ore, the impact of the collision flinging several compartments into the adjacent track. A few of these coaches hit the last two cars of the Howrah-bound Yesvantpur Express, which was passing by on the opposite line at the same time. The crash killed 278 people and injured nearly 1,100 in what was the worst accident suffered by the public transporter since 1995.

On Sunday, Union railway minister Ashwini Vaishnaw said the railway board sought a CBI probe into the accident over suspicions of a possible sabotage attempt.

The agency’s investigators and experts from the Central Forensic Science Laboratory (CFSL) are expected to pick up evidence from the accident site, documents from the railway ministry, and examine the victims, railway staff, rescuers, local administration and eyewitnesses to establish what exactly happened, said a CBI official who did not wish to be named. It is also likely to take the help of technical experts to know more about train derailments and interlocking systems.

The federal agency is also likely to re-register a first information report (FIR) filed on June 3 by the Government Railway Police (GRP) Cuttack.

The FIR was registered against unknown persons under various sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) including 304A (causing death by negligence), sections 337 and 338 (related to endangering life of others), and sections 153, 154 and 175 of Railways Act (which also deal with endangering lives). “At present, culpability of specific railway employees not ascertained, which will be unearthed during investigation,” the FIR, which HT has seen, added.

Government officials said that the Railways’ preliminary investigation indicated an attempt of “deliberate interference” with the electronic interlocking system because of which the case was handed over to the federal agency. “Unless there is deliberate interference in the system, it is impossible that a route set for the main line is switched to the loop line. Hence the case has been handed over to CBI to probe the matter,” an official familiar with developments said.

The official also said that the preliminary probe pointed to the need for a more thorough investigation. “Various kinds of information have been gathered and they require a professional investigative agency,” he said.

The electronic interlocking system forms the nerve-centre of the Indian Railways’ signalling apparatus. It is an interconnected system of signals, crossings and points – the three elements that comprise the signalling set-up – and ensures that trains across the railways’ expansive 120,000kmnetwork travel seamlessly and do not come in each other’s way.

In Odisha, commissioner of railway safety Shailesh Kumar Pathak interrogated the assistant station master of Bahanaga Bazar station, SB Mohanty, who was in charge of the station on Friday evening and now shunted out to Khurda.He also visited the station signal room and the control room.

“Preliminary probe is underway. It will take time. The exact cause of the accident will be ascertained after the probe is over,” Pathak said.

Officials of the South Eastern Railway said Pathak also spoke to the locomotive pilot Gunanidhi Mohanty, and the assistant locomotive pilot Hazari Behera, of the ill-fated Coromandel Express. Both the men escaped with injuries. “Both of them said the train had moved forward only after receiving the green signal and did not pass when the signal was red. Both the drivers are in private hospitals of Bhubaneswar, and the assistant is scheduled to undergo surgery,” a railay official said, requesting anonymity.

This is not the first time CBI is investigating a derailment case. The agency probed the May 2010 Jnaneswari Express train derailment, which killed 148 people, and had arrested about a dozen people, including a leader linked to Maoist-backed People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCPA).

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    I am a principal correspondent with the national political bureau of the Hindustan Times. I track the aviation and railways ministry. I also write on travel trends. I cover the beats at the national level for the newspaper. Before being in Delhi, I have worked as a journalist in Mumbai as well. My hobbies include trekking and travelling.

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