Thursday, 18 Apr 2024

In India, Trains Start Running Again by Devastating Crash Site

A coal train, blaring its horn in the dark, was the first to rumble past the Bahanaga Bazar rail station, the site of one of the deadliest train disasters in India’s history, as rail lines reopened in both directions after midnight on Monday.

The restoration of the important rail route, watched by senior train officials and a crowd of onlookers, was a step toward easing the disruption of the catastrophic crash that killed at least 275 people and injured more than 1,200.

Workers toiled over the weekend to clear the wreck and restore the mangled tracks. The authorities allowed some stranded trains, limited to a speed of about six miles an hour, to run past the site on Monday, though two affected side lines remained inactive.

The suspended train service had hindered families of the victims from traveling to the town of the crash, Balasore in Odisha State, and claiming their loved ones. Some had arrived via special train services, others in cars on Monday morning provided by their local governments. Still more were making the grim journey, and officials said that the focus now was formally identifying the last of the victims.

“Our task is not over,” said Ashwini Vaishnaw, India’s railway minister, to reporters after the resumption of service on Monday. “We need to make sure that family members of the missing people should reach them as early as possible.”

About 170 of the bodies had been identified as of Monday, said Pradeep Jena, the chief secretary of Odisha state, adding they were still receiving calls on help lines set up for families of the missing. Mr. Jena said officials hoped to arrive at a final death toll by Monday evening, and he said officials aren’t taking any chances.

“Every paper, every hospital, every reconciliation is very important,” he said.

Some 100 bodies are still unclaimed. Mr. Jena said that in a worst-case scenario it was possible that some bodies would have to be cremated, though that decision had not been made.

Officials have shared preliminary information about the sequence of events in the three-way accident: At around 7 p.m. local time on Friday, a high-speed passenger train struck an idled parked freight train, derailing some cars. The derailed cars then slammed into a second passenger train, with the force of the collisions causing a horrific tangle of crushed metal and bodies.

Questions around responsibility spilled into another day as opposition politicians, who have called for Mr. Vaishnaw’s resignation, accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government of not doing enough to ensure rail safety.

“Consistently flawed decision-making has made traveling by rail unsafe and has in turn compounded the problems of our people,” said Mallikarjun Kharge, an opposition leader in Parliament, in an open letter to Mr. Modi, adding it was “incumbent upon the government” to determine the reasons behind the incident.

Railway authorities have asked for the case to be handled by India’s top investigation agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation, Mr. Vaishnaw told reporters on Sunday. The agency typically handles high-profile criminal cases in India, including fraud and corruption, and details were not offered on why it had taken on the case.

Officials have focused on the malfunctioning of an electronic signal system designed to stop accidents as a cause for the crash, but have not ruled out further sabotage. Mr. Vaishnaw told reporters on Sunday that he would leave it to investigators to share further details.

More than 20 million passengers take India’s trains every day, and the rail network is one of the largest in the world. Mr. Modi’s government has in recent years presided over an overhaul of the network, dedicating an increase in spending in the last fiscal year and unveiling a fleet of new electric trains. But a recent audit found that spending is falling for safety measures, including improvements for more than 13,000 older trains and track maintenance.

Improvements had in recent years been made for rail safety in India, with the number of serious train accidents dropping. Rail safety had appeared to improve in recent decades, with the number of derailments and serious train accidents falling.

Hari Kumar is a reporter in the New Delhi bureau. He joined The Times in 1997. @HariNYT

Isabella Kwai is a breaking news reporter in the London bureau. She joined The Times in 2017 as part of the Australia bureau. @bellakwai

Sameer Yasir is a reporter based in New Delhi. He joined The Times in 2020. @sameeryasir

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