Odisha train tragedy: Railway official noted signalling system flaws in Feb

The note, on an averted disaster on the South Western Railway, hints at a likely cause for the Odisha tragedy. The railways are also severely understaffed in the safety dept.

A police officer maintains vigil near the wreckage of the three trains in the accident on 3 June 2023 in Odisha's Balasore district (photo: Abhishek Chinnappa/Getty Images)
A police officer maintains vigil near the wreckage of the three trains in the accident on 3 June 2023 in Odisha's Balasore district (photo: Abhishek Chinnappa/Getty Images)

NH Digital

In the initial probe into the deadly train crash in Odisha on Friday, 2 June, it was revealed that the accident was caused most likely by the failure of the signalling system, amidst declining resources for track inspections and shortfalls in pledged funds for critical safety-related works.

However, according to news reports, at least one official within the railway board had already warned of flaws in the signalling system back in February.

The chief operating manager of the South Western Railway zone had raised concerns over signal failure for an express train in a communication with the subject 'Serious unsafe incident happened at Hosadurga Road station of Birur–Chikjajur section of Mysore division on 08.02.2023, involving Train no. 12649 Sampark Kranti Express, leading to condition for averted head-on collision with a down goods train [sic]', stated a news report in The Print.

At least 288 people were killed and around 1,100 were injured in the three-train collision in Odisha's Balasore, in what has been termed the country’s deadliest rail accident in recent years. The crash involved the Bengaluru–Howrah superfast express, the Shalimar–Chennai Central Coromandel Express and a goods train.

The sequence of events that led to Friday’s triple-train collision and derailments near Bahanaga Bazar station in Odisha’s Balasore district is under investigation.

However, Union railway minister Ashwini Vaishnaw said on Sunday, June 4, that the root cause of the three-train accident has been identified. He said the probe into the train accident was complete and the commissioner of railway safety would soon submit the report.

In the case of the accident averted on the South Western Railway, the chief operating manager (who is an engineer) had written, "…It was strange that the route of dispatch was set and [the] starter was taken off, PLCT was given, but point no: 65A automatically set in wrong direction (Down direction).” A PLCT is a paper 'line clear' ticket, which is used in special circumstances and allows a train to enter a blocked section in the system. The engineer added that it was “due to the alertness of the loco pilot" that the train was stopped before entering the down line, which "averted a major disaster".

He had highlighted that that there were "serious flaws in the system where the route of dispatch gets altered after a train starts on signals with correct appearance of route in the SMS panel. This contravenes the essence and basic principles of interlocking".

Warning his seniors, the engineer had underscored that if the signal maintenance system were not monitored and corrected immediately, it could lead to "re-occurrence [of such near misses] and serious accidents".

According to multiple officials present at a 'Chintan Shivir' (think tank session) headed by railway minister Ashwini Vaishnaw on Friday, 2 June, presentations by various zones on railway safety were skipped. 

According to a response obtained in answer to a request per the Right to Information Act, filed by the Times of India, the ministry said that a majority of the 39 railway zones and production units are lacking in human resources.

The Railways are reeling under a staff shortage, with 3.12 lakh non-gazetted posts lying vacant across the country, spread across 18 zones, as on 1 December 2022. The maximum number of vacant posts are in the northern zone (38,754), followed by the western (30,476), eastern (30,141), and central zones (28,650). The south Central has 16,894 vacancies

As an indicative ratio, in answer to a question in the Rajya Sabha, the ministry had revealed that in the Central Railway, of the 28,650 vacant posts, almost 50 per cent of the vacancies (14,203) are in the safety category, which includes operating and maintenance staff — such as inspectors of various kinds, drivers, train examiners, shunters, amongst several others.

In total, there are 14,815 vacancies in the signal and telecommunications department and 62,264 vacancies in the traffic transportation department, across Indian railways.

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