Did 'stupid boxes' cause Balasore train tragedy?

Collision exposes vulnerabilities in railway signalling system

14-A-passenger-prays-as-the-Coromandel-Express-prepares On wheels and a prayer: A passenger prays as the Coromandel Express prepares to depart the Shalimar station near Kolkata on June 7 | Salil Bera

It was quite dark at 6:55pm on Friday, June 2. The 12841 Coromandel Express from Kolkata to Chennai hurtled down the track at 129kmph. It was nearing the Bahanaga Bazar station in Odisha’s Balasore district.

A railway division’s documents of June 1, 3 and 6, accessed by THE WEEK, showed that BPAC failures were reported on all three days.

Loco pilots Gunanidhi Mohanty and Hazari Behera had seen the green signal ahead. It meant all was okay; there was no stop at Bahanaga Bazar, so they could race ahead.

But in a split second, the train slid on to a loop line, where the mandated speed limit is 15kmph. On the loop line was a stationary goods train laden with iron ore. The Coromandel crashed into the goods train and, worse, its careening bogies hit the rear bogies of a train that was going in the opposite direction―the 12864 Bengaluru-Howrah Superfast Express.

Hundreds of passengers died in seconds. The final toll: At least 288 dead and around 1,000 injured.

The horrifying train tragedy was the worst in two decades. It put under the scanner one of the railway’s best kept secrets―a faulty signalling system. Official opinions in news reports, though, alluded to a ‘human hand’ in the accident, adding a new dimension to an already complex issue. “We have identified the cause of the incident and the people responsible for it,” said Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw. “It happened due to a change in electronic interlocking.” The minister, of course, did not name the people identified.

Two ‘parallel’ probes are under way. One by the commissioner of railway safety (southeastern circle), who began an investigation on June 5. The other one by the CBI, which will decide on criminality, as it is the agency’s standard mandate.

A train tragedy 24 years ago had led to an overhauling of the signalling system. On August 2, 1999, the Avadh Assam Express and the Brahmaputra Mail collided head-on near Gaisal in West Bengal’s Uttar Dinajpur district, killing 290 people. News that a signalling malfunction had caused the collision sent shockwaves and forced railway minister Nitish Kumar to step down.

It was then that the signalling system was overhauled and Block Proving by Axle Counter (BPAC) system introduced across the country. BPAC ensures that a track section or line is empty before permitting a train to enter it. It automatically coordinates movement of trains. Another critical component of the signalling system is the ‘electric point machine’ that sets the track. A railway official, however, said, “We use a separate term for these point machines. Stupid boxes.”

16-Officials-inside-the-station-master System crash?: Officials inside the station master’s room at Bahanaga Bazar station in Odisha on June 6 | Salil Bera

BPAC is supposed to be foolproof, but apparently there are recurrent failures. Any failure to ensure that a track section is free affects the efficacy of the point machines, which in turn jeopardises the entire railway signalling system. As if in acknowledgment of the vulnerability of the signalling system, BPAC system coexists with the older ‘relay switch’ system. “Even today, both systems coexist,” said the official.

A railway division’s documents of June 1, 3 and 6, accessed by THE WEEK, showed that BPAC failures were reported on all three days. Records showed that outages lasted 87 minutes, 80 minutes and 55 minutes on June 1, 3 and 6, respectively.

A day after the June 2 accident, a team of five officials carried out an on-the-spot assessment and filed a joint inspection report. They said “signal was given and taken off for the main line for 12841 (the Coromandel), but this train entered… the loop line and [crashed] with the goods train, which was on loop line, and derailed.”

A Coromandel-like disaster was averted just four months earlier. On February 8, signalling malfunction near the Hosadurga station under the Mysuru division sent the 12649 Sampark Kranti Express on a collision course with a goods train. The error was detected on time and mishap averted.

The following day, Hari Shankar Verma, principal chief operations manager of South Western Railway, informed the zonal headquarters at Hubballi, Karnataka, that there were “serious flaws” in the signalling system. “The route of despatch gets altered after a train starts [after receiving] signals with the correct appearance of route in the panel. This contravenes the essence and basic principles of interlocking,” Verma wrote. “The present incident must be viewed very seriously and immediate corrective actions are required to be taken to rectify the system faults.”

An industry veteran said cost-cutting aggravated the problem: “There were only very few companies that bid for supplying BPAC machines and equipment. With L1, or the lowest bidder, being the prime determining factor to bag contracts, there is an inevitable pressure to cut costs to make profits. This leads to a lot of substandard fitments which somehow escape the scrutiny of the Research Designs and Standards Organisation, which approves the equipment.”

What about a ‘human hand’? “A human hand would be possible if a signalling expert gets into the relay room in stations, which is the heart of everything. But that room is an out-of-bounds zone and every activity is logged,” said the veteran. “Moreover, multiple experts have to be involved for something of this sort to happen. That leaves us with faulty and malfunctioning equipment.”

According to another official, the railways lacked the expertise to fix malfunctioning equipment. “This [system failure] is something that can be set right only by the original equipment manufacturer,” said the official. “In other words, the system, including the procurement process, needs a correction, as legacy issues are involved.”