India rail tragedy: Top investigative agency to start its own probe into the 275 deaths

India’s Railway Ministry has recommended that the country’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) conduct an inquiry into the three-train collision that claimed at least 275 lives and left around 1,000 people injured. India’s worst train disaster so far this century occurred last Friday evening in the Balasore district in the eastern state of Odisha, about 1,640km from the national capital of New Delhi.

India rail tragedy: Top investigative agency to start its own probe into the 275 deaths

India rail tragedy: Top investigative agency to start its own probe into the 275 deaths

A review meeting report has surfaced, revealing that the top rail official had raised “grave safety concerns” weeks before the deadly crash

By Joydeep Sen Gupta, Asia editor

India’s Railway Ministry has recommended that the country’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) conduct an inquiry into the three-train collision that claimed at least 275 lives and left around 1,000 people injured.

India’s worst train disaster so far this century occurred last Friday evening in the Balasore district in the eastern state of Odisha, about 1,640km from the national capital of New Delhi.

Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw announced the decision to hand over the probe to the CBI. A parallel investigation by the commissioner for Railway Safety (CRM), Southern Circle, Anant Madhukar Chowdhary is also underway, and a report is likely to be submitted within the next two weeks. Preliminary reports suggest that a signal fault led to the lethal crash.

Vaishnaw’s choice for a CBI probe into the horrific accident is unusual since the agency generally investigates high-profile criminal cases such as serious financial fraud and murder. Vaishnaw said on Sunday that the “root cause” of the accident and people responsible for the “criminal act” had been identified.

“grave safety concerns” had been raised by CEO and chairman of the Railway Board, Anil Lahoti. In April, a meeting was held at which Lahoti had cited a 37% rise in rail accidents. The report highlighted track maintenance issues, teething troubles with signaling and operations, and other “systemic deficiencies.” Poor working conditions of railway employees of the South East Central Railway and East Coast Railway zones were also highlighted, with workers reportedly working excesively long hours, often for more than 12 hours at a time, a circumstance that increases the likelihood of errors.

A Right to Information (RTI) request revealed that more than 300,110 out of the nearly 1.5 million clerical posts and 3,018 of the 18,881 officers’ ranks are vacant at Indian Railways, the country’s second-biggest state-run employer. To make matters worse, the automatic anti-collision device mechanism, known as ‘Kavach’, has been implemented on only 1,445km, or 2%, of the total 68,000km of railway across the country.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has been taking heat over the tragedy as several reports have blamed the administration for compromising on safety measures despite a large budget allocation.

Rail officials said that train service on the affected line resumed on Sunday evening. A cargo train loaded with coal was the first train to pass through the same stretch of track where the crash had occurred 51 hours ago.