Error in signaling system blamed for deadly train crash in India

Train cars rest on their sides after a fatal crash.
People gather at the site of a train crash in the eastern Indian state of Orissa.
(Rafiq Maqbool / Associated Press)

The derailment in eastern India that killed 275 people and injured hundreds was caused by an error in the electronic signaling system that led a train to wrongly change tracks and crash into a freight train, officials said Sunday.

Authorities worked to clear the mangled wreckage of the two passenger trains that derailed Friday night in Balasore district in Odisha state in one of the country’s deadliest rail disasters in decades.

An Odisha government statement revised the death toll to 275 after a top state officer put the number at more than 300 on Sunday morning. The officer spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to reporters.


Jaya Verma Sinha, a senior railway official, said the preliminary investigations revealed that a signal was given to the high-speed Coromandel Express to run on the main track line, but the signal later changed, and the train instead entered an adjacent loop line where it rammed into a freight loaded with iron ore.

The collision flipped Coromandel Express’ coaches onto another track, causing the oncoming Yesvantpur-Howrah Express from the opposite side also to derail, she said.

The passenger trains, carrying 2,296 people, were not exceeding the speed limit, she said. Trains that carry goods are often parked on an adjacent loop line so the main line is clear for a passing train.

Verma said the cause of the crash was related to an error in the electronic signaling system. She said a detailed investigation will reveal whether the error was human or technical.

The electronic interlocking system is a safety mechanism designed to prevent conflicting movements between trains. It also monitors the status of signals that tell drivers how close they are to a next train, how fast they can go and the presence of stationary trains on the track.

“The system is 99.9% error-free. But 0.1% chances are always there for an error,” Verma said. To a question on whether the crash could be a case of sabotage, she responded, “Nothing is ruled out.”


On Sunday, a few shattered carriages, mangled and overturned, were the only remnants of the tragedy. Railway workers toiled under the sun’s glare to lay down blocks of cement to fix the broken tracks. A crew with excavators was removing mud and the debris to clear the crash site.

At a nearby hospital, survivors spoke of the horror of the moment of the crash.

Pantry worker Inder Mahato could not remember the exact sequence of events, but said he heard a loud bang when the Coromandel Express crashed into the freight train. The impact caused Mahato, who was in the bathroom, to briefly lose consciousness.

Moments later when he opened his eyes, he saw through the door that was forced open people writhing in pain. Many of the passengers were dead. Others were frantically trying to get out from the twisted wreckage of his rail car.

For hours, Mahato, 37, remained stuck in the train’s bathroom, before rescuers scaled up the wreckage and pulled him out.

“God saved me,” he said, lying on the hospital bed while recuperating from a hairline fracture in his sternum. “I am very lucky I am alive.”

Mahato’s friends weren’t so lucky. Four of them died in the crash, he said.

Meanwhile, many desperate relatives were struggling to identify the bodies of their loved ones because of the gruesomeness of the injuries. Others were searching hospitals to check whether relatives were alive.

In the same hospital where Mahato was recovering, Bulti Khatun roamed outside the premises in a dazed state, holding an identity card of her husband who was on board the Coromandel Express and traveling to southern Chennai city.

Khatun said she visited the morgue and other hospitals to look for him, but was unable to find him.

“I am so helpless,” she said, sobbing.

Fifteen bodies were recovered Saturday evening, and efforts continued overnight with heavy cranes being used to remove an engine that settled on top of a rail car. No bodies were found in the engine, and the work was completed Sunday morning, said Sudhanshu Sarangi, director-general of fire and emergency services in Odisha.

The crash occurred at a time when Prime Minister Narendra Modi is focusing on modernizing the British colonial-era railroad network in India, now the world’s most populous country with 1.42 billion people. Despite government efforts to improve safety, several hundred accidents occur every year on India’s railways, the largest train network under one management in the world.

Modi visited the crash site Saturday and talked to rescue officials. He also visited a hospital to inquire about the injured, and spoke to some of them.

He told reporters he felt the pain of the crash victims. He said the government would do its utmost to help them and punish anyone found responsible.

In 1995, two trains collided near New Delhi, killing 358 people in one of the worst rail accidents in India. In 2016, a passenger train slid off the tracks between Indore and Patna, killing 146.

Most crashes in India are blamed on human error or outdated signaling equipment.

About 22 million people ride 14,000 Indian trains each day on 40,000 miles of track.

The massive derailment involving two passenger trains is a stark reminder of safety issues that continue to challenge the vast railway system that transports nearly 22 million passengers each day.