The recommendation of a CBI probe to “find the root cause” of the triple train crash in Odisha that killed more than 270 people and injured over 1,000 has set off speculation that the signalling system error, which is believed to have led to the accident, had more human intervention than previously thought.
The Railways, too, sought a CBI inquiry into the train crash in Odisha’s Balasore district, hours after Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw said the “root cause” of the “criminal act” and the people behind it have been identified.
“We have recommended a CBI probe into the triple train accident,” Vaishnaw, who had been camping at the accident site since Saturday morning, told reporters in Bhubaneswar on Sunday evening.
Earlier in the day, he said the cause of the accident was related to electric point machine and electronic interlocking.
“The setting of the point machine was changed. How and why it was done will be revealed in the probe report… The root cause of the horrifying incident has been identified… I do not want to go into details. Let the report come out. I will just say that the root cause and the people responsible for the criminal act have been identified,” he said.
The decision to call in the CBI to investigate a train accident has raised eyebrows since the federal agency primarily deals with criminal cases. Moreover, the Railways had already ordered its highest court of inquiry into the tragedy.
‘It Could be That Someone…’
Top Railway officials, while explaining how the point machine and the interlocking system function, said the system is “error proof” and “fail safe” but did not rule out the possibility of outside intervention.
“It is called a fail-safe system, so it means that even if it fails, all the signals will turn red and all train operations will stop. Now, as the minister said there was a problem with the signalling system. It could be that someone has done some digging without seeing the cables. Running of any machine is prone to failures,” Jaya Verma Sinha, Member of Operation and Business Development, Railway Board, said.
Preliminary investigation had revealed that the Chennai-bound Coromandel Express entered the loop line at 7pm on June 5 and crashed into a goods train parked there instead of the main line just ahead of the Bahanagar Bazar station. The coaches of Bengaluru-Howrah Superfast Express capsized after crashing into the coaches of Coromandel Express that had scattered on the adjacent track.
The loop lines of the Indian Railways are constructed in a station area – in this case, the Bahanagar Bazar station – to accommodate more trains to ease out the operations. The loop lines are generally 750 metres in length to accommodate full-length goods train with multiple engines.
“Green signal means that in every way the driver knows that his path ahead is clear and he can go forward with his permitted maximum speed. The permitted speed at this section was 130 kmph and he (Coromandel Express driver) was running his train at 128 kmph which we have confirmed from loco logs,” Jaya Verma had said in a press briefing on Sunday.
Signalling System Under the Scanner
The Railway Board explanation begs the question – why did the Coromandel Express enter the loop line – which in turn throws the spotlight on the electronic interlocking signalling system at the Bahanaga Bazar railway station.
The electronic interlocking system is considered to be the most modern, robust, reliable, and fail-safe one developed over the years. The Indian Railways has been procuring this system from domestic vendors.
Its software-based logic says that if a point is set in reverse direction to push a train to a different track, then signals behind such facing point cannot be green. They would be either yellow or red.
But that did not happen in the case of the Coromandel Express. The goods train was first taken to the ‘up loop’ line from facing point number 17A and it was set in reverse to allow the goods train to be diverted to the loop line for parking. The Coromandel Express was also coming in the same direction and was supposed to pass through the ‘up main’ and was accordingly given the green signal.
The Video Display Unit of the station indicates that both the distant signal and the home signal were green. But instead of passing through, the Coromandel Express got diverted at the same facing point number 17A, entered the ‘up loop’ line and smashed head-on into the stationary goods train at a speed of 12 kmph, leading to the third biggest train disaster in the history of the Indian Railways.
According to railway experts, such signalling failure cannot happen without human intervention. The electronic interlocking system is operated from the station premises either by the station manager or assistant station manager.
But their functions are limited since they are not technicians and just manage train operations according to the running schedule and the station’s arrangement of tracks and platforms. Simply put, they just push buttons on the panel and give the command. That command then goes through the logic-based electronic message transmission mechanism, sets the points and the signals.
The electronic interlocking system is secured and operated from the Relay Room of the station building, which, like bank lockers, needs two keys to be opened. The room cannot be opened without proper approval and use of multiple keys that are kept in the possession of different departments.
The Relay Room is only opened if any problem with the system is noticed and it needs correction. It is also opened as per protocol if signal-related works are carried out at a particular station. But no such signalling work was on at the Bahanaga Bazar station on the fateful night of June 2.
As the first train on the section chugged out on Sunday night, 51 hours after the horrific crash, and 200 bodies remain unidentified, all eyes are on the direction of the CBI investigation.