CBI, NIA failed to identify culprits for train accidents in 2010 and 2016

Central Bureau of Investigation was handed over the inquiry into Gyaneshwari Express accident in 2010 while NIA investigated into the Indore-Patna train accident in 2016

The Balasore train accident (photo: DW)
The Balasore train accident (photo: DW)

NH Digital

Even as a CBI team arrived on Tuesday at the Balasore train accident site in Odisha to investigate ‘criminality’ involved in what the government suspects to be sabotage, controversy over the decision has refused to die down; not the least because neither the CBI nor NIA has much expertise or experience in investigating train accidents. At least two cases handed over to the two central agencies have reached a dead end.

The Gyaneshwari Express accident in 2010 and the Indore-Patna Express accident in 2016 both resulted in the death of 150 passengers. While the CBI was asked to investigate the first, the NIA was handed over the investigation in 2016 after the Prime Minister spoke of a ‘conspiracy’ that led to the accident.

Last week’s accident at Balasore, which has officially taken a toll of 275 passengers, is now being investigated by the CBI but eyebrows have been raised because there is an independent Commission of Railway Safety mandated to inquire into train accidents. The CRS operates under the ministry of civil aviation so as to prevent direct interference by the Railway Board. The Balasore accident is apparently being investigated by the CRS, the CBI as well as a technical team from the Railway Board.

The decision to invite the CBI to take over the investigation has caused surprise partly because Railway minister Ashwini Vaishnav claimed that the case had been cracked and the Railway Board had identified the reason and the people involved. The Railway Board officials have also claimed that manipulation or defect in the electronic interlocking system send the wrong signal and sent Coromandel Express from the main line to the loop line.

The decision to hand over the investigation to the CBI, therefore, is widely seen as a diversionary tactic to find scapegoats and deflect the government’s own responsibility for the accident. There is considerable unease within the Railways and both serving and retired Railway officials have voiced their scepticism over the move.

The Railway Board and the ministry’s focus on fancy trains like Vande Bharat and the Bullet Train, their failure to pay enough attention on track renewal, inspections and upgrading signals are said to be some of the key reasons for putting a question mark on railway safety.

In a letter to the Prime Minister, Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge drew his attention to over 300,000 vacancies in the Railways, half of them in critical departments with a bearing on railway safety. Railway employees are overworked, the letter pointed out, and the Railway Board too has admitted that loco pilots are working overtime and far longer than what is mandated.

The letter also points out that while the Railways had 1.8 million employees in the 1990s, the strength has come down to 1.2 million, with 0.3 million of them on contract. The East Coast Railway under which Balasore falls, itself has 8,248 posts vacant.       

The dying statement of the driver in the Coromandel Express, Railway officials believe, is significant. He had said that he had received the green signal. In that case, the train should not have shifted to the loop line. As it was on the loop line, it collided with the stationary goods train laden with iron ore.

The mystery of the 'Green Signal' is the technical aspect that requires to be investigated by the technical team of the Indian Railways. Railways do have a large manpower dedicated to examining technical aspects. Without ascertaining whether there was a defect in the interlocking system or it was manipulated deliberately, they say, it was futile to hand over the investigation to the CBI. It would have made more sense if the technical team had first concluded that there was some mischief or outside intervention.

With three more deaths confirmed on Tuesday morning by the Railway Ministry, the official death toll stands at 278.

Meanwhile, the CBI has taken over the probe in the case. The senior Railway officials from Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus Station claimed that the accident, in which a speeding Coromandel Express crashed into a stationary goods train on the loop line instead of travelling on the main line, indicated issues with the electronic interlocking system which changed the route of the train and led to the collision.

"It seems that speeding Coromandel Express was on the track with high speed and it must be that the loco pilot got a 'green signal' to pass, and the point could have failed for transfer. This is what [might] have happened. Then the superfast express collided [with it]. It is point failure. The officials are unnecessarily drifting [sic] the focus to sabotage and by [these] means involving the CBI for further investigation," said a senior official from the Mumbai Suburban Railway on condition of anonymity.

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