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Odisha train crash probe now focuses on signal bypass: Report

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The ongoing investigation into the Balasore train crash in Odisha is now concentrating on a potential case of manual bypassing of the automated signalling system, said sources in the Indian Railways.

This action, believed to have been carried out by railway workers, resulted in a collision between a crowded express train and a stationary freight train. The investigators from the Commission of Railway Safety (CRS) suspect that the bypassing was done to overcome signalling challenges caused by a malfunctioning barrier used to halt road traffic at a nearby rail-road crossing, as reported by two of the three sources.

Earlier reports from both Indian and international media suggested that a possible malfunction in the automated signalling system could have been a contributing factor in the crash. However, Reuters has now provided new information regarding the frequent malfunctions of the nearby rail-road barrier and its potential connection to a manual bypass of the signalling system.

Also read: Odisha accident site, a week later: Trains have moved on, locals have not

No word from rail safety authority

Despite attempts to gather more information, the Commission of Railway Safety (CRS), India’s rail safety authority, has not responded to requests for comment on the matter.

Indian Railways, which operates as a state monopoly under the Railway Board, acknowledged that repair works are carried out as required but emphasised that tampering with the automated system is not allowed. However, the spokesperson declined to provide further details on the crash’s causes, citing an ongoing investigation.

Amitabh Sharma, the chief information officer at the Railways Ministry, said the investigation is still on to determine the exact cause of the accident. Regarding the investigators’ suspicion of a potential manual bypass of the electronic system, Sharma characterised them as speculations that cannot be confirmed at this stage.

The spokesman for the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the federal police agency responsible for conducting a separate probe into potential criminal negligence, did not provide any comment in response to the request.

Also read: Odisha train tragedy: No train to halt at Bahanaga Bazar as CBI seals station

Fault in railway crossing barrier

interviewed five residents from Bahanaga village, who confirmed that the railway crossing barrier had been experiencing faults for nearly three months and had required frequent repairs. According to these residents, whenever a fault occurred, the barrier would become stuck in the closed position, necessitating manual intervention by railway workers to open it.

A retired Indian Railways official, who preferred to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the crash investigation, stated that if the barrier was open, the automated signal system would prevent any train from passing through the rail-road crossing.

Soubhagya Ranjan Sarangi, a 25-year-old pharmacist who owns a shop near the railway crossing, stated that the electric barrier would sometimes function properly and other times it would not.

However, Niranjan Sarangi, a 66-year-old retired school teacher who often spends evenings with friends near the crossing, mentioned that the barrier seemed to be working fine at the time of the crash. He added that when malfunctions occurred, personnel from the railway department would come and repair it.

Also read: Odisha train tragedy: Hope, despair and kin’s desperate search for loved ones

Tampering with software?

According to one of the three Indian Railways sources with knowledge of the ongoing CRS probe, the initial investigation indicates that the automatic electronic signalling system was “manually changed”, which would require tampering with the software.

The second source, who is briefed on the investigation, stated that Indian Railways believes the system was tampered with. However, it remains unclear whether the intervention was intentional, accidental, or related to ongoing work near the signal.

The third source revealed that the initial investigation indicated that the signalling system was bypassed because the repair workers were attempting to fix the malfunctioning barrier.

Though India’s rail network is undergoing a significant transformation, the incident has raised concerns about whether sufficient attention is being given to safety in the rail network. The government has stated that safety indicators have shown improvement over the years, accident rates have decreased, and adequate funding is being allocated to ensure safety.

Also read: Odisha train accident: School that stored bodies may be razed as kids refuse to return

Questions over interlocking system

Two days after the crash, Jaya Varma Sinha, a member of the Railway Board, informed reporters that it appeared the electronic signalling system, known as the “interlocking system”, had given the Coromandel Express a green signal, leading it onto the wrong track.

According to the CRS findings, it is now suggested that the interlocking system, which was supposed to be “fail-safe” as mentioned by Sinha, had been compromised by workers attempting to find a workaround, as revealed by the third Indian Railways source. However, Sinha has not responded to a request from Reuters for an update on the investigation.

Sandeep Mathur, the principal executive director for signalling at Indian Railways, who is responsible for the signalling system, did not provide any information regarding the supplier of the interlocking system despite requests from Reuters. The identity of the supplier and the verification of Sinha’s claim regarding its fail-safe nature could not be independently established.

The interlocking system plays a crucial role in coordinating signals, track routes, and track occupancy to ensure the safe passage of trains through stations.

Also read: Odisha train crash: 40 Coromandel Express passengers may have died of electrocution

Manual interference

The third railways source, along with a retired railways official and a senior police officer who previously worked in the railway police in Odisha, informed Reuters that railway workers sometimes manually interfere with the system to alter the signal, particularly on busy routes, in order to avoid slowing down or stopping rail traffic during repair and maintenance work. The retired official and the police officer preferred to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the crash investigation.

Sudhanshu Mishra, another retired railway official who worked in the safety department, stated that manual workarounds are allowed under railway protocols if authorised by a senior official with all necessary precautions in place. The Indian Railways spokesman did not directly address the issue of authorisation, only stating that it is not allowed under Indian Railways rules. Reuters was unable to independently verify whether the suspected workaround on the evening of the crash was authorised or not.

A June 8 circular from the Railway Board, regarding the “safety of track”, emphasised that workers should be counselled and guided against taking shortcuts while performing work. This circular was sent to all general managers of Indian Railways.

The control of the interlocking system is situated inside a restricted area within a small building at the Bahanaga Bazar station, with access limited to authorised railway workers and officials.

Also read: Odisha train crash: CBI team at Balasore to begin probe

Two visits to control room

The second source mentioned that records indicated two visits to the Bahanaga system control room that evening: the first for authorised operational work, while the reason for the second visit is yet to be determined.

As part of the ongoing investigation, the railway employees at the station, including those who were involved in the repair work of the barrier, have been interrogated by the railway investigators. They will also be questioned by the CBI, according to the second and third sources.

However, these sources did not disclose the names of the individuals being probed, as the investigation is still in progress. Reuters could not independently determine the number of workers under investigation or their identities.

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