Officials from the Indian Railways on Tuesday said that an automatic signal failure had occurred prior to the collision of two trains in West Bengal’s Darjeeling district, but clarified that the cause of the accident could be determined only after an inquiry, reported The Indian Express.

On Monday, a goods train collided with the Sealdah-bound Kanchanjunga Express near the New Jalpaiguri railway station, killing 10 persons, including a six-year-old girl who died on Tuesday.

The chairman of the Railway Board, Jaya Varma Sinha, had said after the accident that the cause of the collision prima facie appeared to be human error on the part of the driver of the goods train. “The first indications suggest that this is a case of signal disregard,” said Sinha.

On Tuesday, Janak Kumar Garg, chief commissioner of railway safety in the Northeast Frontier Railway, launched a statutory inquiry into the accident. “There was definitely an automatic signal failure, but in such situations the drivers have to follow a set protocol,” The Indian Express quoted Garg as saying.

He added that the investigation would look into why the goods train was running at a high speed. “We have initiated an inquiry which will be done at the ADRM [Additional Divisional Railway Manager] office,” said Garg. “The actual cause of the incident can only be ascertained after the inquiry.”

A prima facie assessment found that negligence on the part of the goods train driver led to the collision, The Indian Express reported on Tuesday citing official documents. The automatic signalling system on the line was not working, it added.

According to the newspaper, the documents also said that the Kanchenjunga Express was given a “paper line clearance” to cross at 8.20 am by the Rangapani station manager as the automatic signalling system was down. The goods train was given clearance at 8.35 am.

Samir Goswami, the former chief public relations officer of the Eastern Railways, told the newspaper that the automatic signalling system was under maintenance along the route where the collision occurred.

“In this situation, the train has power to cross the red signal but the rule is, in daytime, they have to stop at the signal for one minute and then they can scroll but at 10 kilometres per hour,” Goswami said. “We know that the Kanchanjunga Express followed that rule but the goods train did not. Question is, why?”

Goswami also pointed out that the goods train driver and co-driver, along with the guard of the Kanchenjunga Express, had died in the accident. “So no eyewitnesses remain,” he said.

Unfair to blame goods train driver before probe: Railway unions

On Tuesday, railway employee unions criticised the Railway Board for blaming the driver of the goods train, saying that he was being made a scapegoat for systematic shortcomings in the Indian Railway’s infrastructure, PTI reported.

“It was highly insensitive on the part of the Railway Board to say that the [goods train] driver overshot the red signal which caused the accident,” Shiva Gopal Mishra, general secretary of All India Railway Men’s Federation, said.

“My advice to the Railway Board is that in such cases, instead of blaming any staff, they should wait till the probe concludes,” he added. “I don’t think that the driver was solely responsible for the accident.”

The collision in West Bengal took place more than a year after 293 passengers were killed and around 900 injured in three-train collision in Odisha’s Balasore on June 2, 2023. This was one of the worst train accidents in India.

An investigation by the railway safety commissioner found that faulty signalling due to two botched repair operations had led to the Balasore accident.