The railway authorities had been warned on two instances about flaws in the signalling system and shortcomings that cause derailment in the six months leading to the accident in Balasore on Friday which killed 275 passengers and left over 900 injured in one of India’s worst train disasters.

In a report tabled in December, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India had flagged 24 factors responsible for derailments. The report titled “Derailments in Indian Railways”, which looked into reasons behind trains going off the rails between April 2017 to March 2021, found that inadequate maintenance of tracks was one of the major contributors to such accidents.

In a separate development in February, the principal chief operating manager of South Western Railway zone had written to the authorities about “serious flaws” in the signalling system, The Print reported. In a letter written after a train averted a head-on collision, the official warned that if glitches in the signalling system are not fixed, they could lead to “re-occurrence and serious accidents”.

The accident on Friday occurred around 7 pm in Odisha’s Balasore when two coaches of the Yesvantpur-Howrah Express derailed near the Bahanaga railway station. The derailed coaches came in the path of the speeding Coromandel Express on the adjoining track and collided with it. A goods train was also hit in the process.

The accident likely took place due to a failure in the signalling system, an initial investigation has found, according to The Hindu. The Coromandel Express had initially been given the green signal to enter the Up Main Line, but the signal was later taken off. Following this, the express train entered a loop line where it ran into the goods train, triggering the multi-train collision, the initial investigation showed.

Letter about glitches in signalling

On February 9, the principal chief operating manager of South Western Railway zone wrote to the authorities after the Yesvantpur-Hazrat Nizamuddin Sampark Kranti Express narrowly escaped a head-on collision with a goods train, The Print reported.

The official wrote there are “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 [signal maintenance system] panel”.

The glitch defeats the “essence and basic principles of interlocking”, the official said. Interlocking is a mechanism that prevents conflicting movements of trains using an arrangement of signals, points and other tools.

In the above incident, the signalling system wrongly gave Sampark Kranti Express the clearance to enter the Down line near Hosadurga Road station in Karnataka. A head-on collision with a goods train could be averted due to “alertness of the loco pilot”, who stopped the before entering the wrong line, the official wrote.

On Saturday, the Indian Railways said that Kavach, an anti-train collision system, was not available on the route where the accident occurred near Balasore.

CAG report on derailments

An analysis of 1,129 inquiry reports of accidents due to derailment between April 2017 and March 2021, showed that 171 cases were attributed to “maintenance of tracks” and 156 to “deviation of track parameters beyond permissible limits”.

The Comptroller and Auditor General report also flagged that the overall expenditure on Priority-I works from the Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh declined from 81.55% in 2017-18 to 73.76% in 2019-20. The railway ministry had announced an allotment of Rs 1 lakh crore over a period of five years starting from 2017-’18 towards the Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh – a reserve fund for rail safety.

The CAG report also showed that allotment of funds for track renewal also went down from Rs 9,607.65 crore in 2018-’19 to Rs 7,417 crore in 2019-’20. Even the allotted funds were not fully utilised, the report said. In 63% of the derailment incident, the inquiry reports had not been submitted within the stipulated time and in 49% cases, there was a delay from the authorities in accepting the report, according to the CAG.

Also read: What can be done to reduce train derailments in India