Police in the Indian state of Odisha have registered a criminal case of “death by negligence” relating to the train collision on Friday that killed 275 people, as critics accused the government of trying to shift blame for the disaster.
The report filed by police did not name any specific person as being responsible but stated that “culpability of specific railway employees has not been ascertained, which will be unearthed during the investigation”.
According to preliminary reports, it was a signal failure that led the Coromandel Express train to switch tracks from the main line on to the loop line on Friday evening, where a stationary freight train was filled with heavy iron ore.
The trains collided at such force that carriages from the express, which was carrying more than 1,000 passengers, flipped on to the opposite tracks and derailed the oncoming Howrah superfast express train, with devastating consequences.
A massive rescue operation, involving the national disaster response force and hundreds of volunteers, continued for two days to pull survivors and bodies from the wreckage. Since then, relatives have struggled to locate the bodies of their loved ones, many whom were badly disfigured. More than 100 bodies had yet to be identified by Monday.
The railways minister, Ashwini Vaishnaw, and members of the railway board said the investigation was focusing on a failure of the track management system, which automatically co-ordinates and controls the signals to oncoming trains and is meant to ensure they are always directed to empty tracks.
It appeared this automatic “interlocking system” had failed on Friday, sending the Coromandel Express train down the loop track. However, Mr Vaishnaw, who is facing calls for his resignation, would not say if the failure was caused by a technical fault, human error or interference.
This system is in use across India’s entire 64,000km (40,000 mile) network. On Monday, the railway board ordered a widespread examination of the signalling system, with different zones required to submit safety reports by next week.
The government also requested that the central bureau of investigation, a government agency, begin a criminal investigation into the collision, an indication that arrests could be made over the incident.
Visiting the site on Saturday, the prime minister, Narendra Modi, vowed that “those found guilty will be severely punished”. The railways board has launched an investigation into the disaster.
Political opponents accused the Modi government of trying to shift focus on to an investigation into criminal negligence by an individual, rather than shouldering responsibility for the disaster and examining safety issues on the railway network.
It emerged that a similar incident, involving a failure of the interlocking system, had taken place in the state of Karnataka in February but the driver had noticed in time and stopped the train before it was sent down the wrong track, narrowly avoiding a crash.
The principal chief operations manager of south western railway had raised concerns over the failure at the time. In an internal letter sent to the railways minister, he warned there were “serious flaws in the system” and said “immediate corrective measures are required to rectify the system faults and sensitising the staff for not venturing into shortcuts leading to major mishap”.
In recent years, the government has spent billions modernising India’s colonial-era railways, including the introduction of superfast trains, but spending on maintenance and basic safety measures and upgrades has been falling, while a lack of manpower has meant that allocated funds of track upgrades have not been spent.
Mallikarjun Kharge, the president of the opposition Congress party, accused the government of “apathy and negligence” over rail safety and alleged that “red flags” were ignored.
On Monday morning, another freight train, carrying limestone, derailed in Odisha though no one was injured. — The Guardian