Odisha three-train tragedy: Initial probe says signal ‘interference’ root cause, CBI called in

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JUNE 4, 2023

NEW DELHI/BHUBANESWAR: In an unusual move, the Centre on Sunday announced a CBI probe into the rail accident in Odisha as the railways’ preliminary investigation singled out “interference” with the ‘electronic interlocking system’ and ‘points’, which ensure safe movement of trains, as the “root cause” of the crash.

The railway ministry ruled out any fault of the loco driver of the Coromandel Express and failure of signals. Though the decision to bring in CBI points to suspicions of criminality, railway minister Ashwini Vaishnaw and the Railway Board did not mention sabotage. “Considering the nature of the accident, the prevailing circumstances and the administrative inputs, the Railway Board has recommended that the case be handed over to the CBI for further investigation,” Vaishnaw told the media in Bhubaneswar.

Talking to reporters earlier in the day at the crash site, Vaishnaw had said the “root cause of the dreadful and painful accident and the people responsible for it have been identified”. Describing as “criminals” the persons who, according to the preliminary probe, could have interfered with the points and the electronic interlocking system, the minister said the commissioner of railway safety had completed the inquiry and would submit its report soon with details. “It won’t be right to say anything. Let the entire thing be investigated by the proper investigating authorities,” he added.

Late in the evening, after restoration of the track for downline movement (from Chennai to Howrah) the minister said exemplary punishment would be meted out to those responsible.

This was corroborated by Jaya Sinha, member (operations and business development) in the Railway Board who, while addressing a press conference in New Delhi, said, “We know the reason, but it’s prime facie. It would be wrong on my part to say anything since it’s confidential info. The Commission of Railway Safety (CRS) is investigating. It’s not that we don’t know, but we are not saying anything because it’s not allowed to disclose when the matter is being investigated.”

She also said the loco driver of Coromandel Express, Gunanidhi Mohanty, had said that the signal was green when he approached Bahanaga Bazar. Those were, perhaps, the last words of the grievously injured Mohanty who lost consciousness soon after and died while under treatment.

The assistant loco pilot, who was injured in the accident, is undergoing treatment.

Sinha, who maintained the train was not overspeeding, said the signal malfunctioning could also be because of careless digging by a crew which did not spot the cables. She said the exact reason would be out after the CRS inquiry.

‘Interference impossible unless someone chooses to do so’

While the CRS inquiry will continue probing the Balasore accident, sources said the Railway Board had to recommend CBI probe as there is a high possibility that people having sophisticated understanding of the entire interlocking and signalling system may have interfered. Sources said the electronic interlocking system malfunctioning is an exceptionally rare occurrence, which can happen possibly in one in a million case.

The sources said the failure could have happened because of two reasons — either the signal maintainer deviated from established protocols while repairing some faults or the signal was manipulated. “Interference is not possible unless someone who has enough understanding chooses to do so. The possibility of someone interfering in the source code in this AI-­based electronic interlocking system cannot be ruled out. The CBI probe will investigate the matter from a criminal angle,” one of the sources said.

Suspicions about the role of signal maintainer arises from the fact that there were technical problems in the signal of a level­crossing close to the mishap site hours before Coromandel Express crashed. It is possible that the signal maintainer was in a hurry to complete the task so that trains on the route were not held up — something for which he may have been reprimanded by his superiors — and did not do the job with due diligence and side stepped procedures.

However, there could be some other human interference which is subject to investigation, a senior railway officer said. “Either of the two factors could be the reason for the strange discrepancy; while the central control panel showed Coromandel Express had the green signal to move on the main line towards Chennai, on the ground, it’s route was set for a loop line where a goods train loaded with iron ore was standing,” the official said.


Courtesy/Source: TOI / PTI