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Odisha Train Accident: Opposition Wants Vaishnaw Out, Here Are Their Allegations

The aftermath of the train accident in Odisha has raised questions over the safety protocols in place.

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India
5 min read
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The Odisha train tragedy has claimed the lives of 261 individuals so far, with over 900 injured and the toll is expected to rise. This has led to several questions being raised over the safety protocols of the trains being run in the country, and what could have been done to prevent such a tragedy. Prime Minister Narendra Modi reached the site of the accident, Balasore, on Saturday evening. As demand for the resignation of Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw grew, the leader said that a high-level committee has been declared to look conduct an inquiry on what led to the accident.

But questions over Vaishnaw’s responsibility, the unavailability of ‘Kavach’ anti-collision system on the networks where accident took place, and the general quality of the trains involved in the tragedy have come to light.

This is what we know so far.

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Preliminary Probe Raises Doubts

Other questions pertaining to the speed of the two passenger trains are also being raised. Based of preliminary reports, it seems that the Coromandel Shalimar Express had derailed and hit a goods train, and another passenger train, the Yesvantpur-Howrah Superfast, crashed into the derailed coaches.

Both passenger trains were made with LHB technology, meant to safeguard against coach pile-ups, as per a report in The News Minute. Despite this, the trains’ collision could not be averted.

Moreover, as per a report in The Hindu, a preliminary investigation conducted by railway officials has revealed that the signal for the Coromandel Express was given for passing through the Up Main Line and then taken off. Why the signal was given and then taken off isn’t clear as of now.

A story in The Print, showed that officials within the railway board had warned sought action against “serious flaws in the system”, especially raising concerns on failure of interlocking in February.

Older Videos of Passengers Struggling Surface

Older videos of passengers traveling in the Coromandel Express began re-circulating after Friday evening’s tragedy. In these older videos and pictures, passengers can be seen scrambling for space and complaining about the travel experience.

Opposition Demands Vaishnaw's Resignation

The political reactions over the tragedy also came pouring in. Banerjee called it the “biggest train accident in the 21st century” and urged Vaishnaw to inquire into what went wrong.

On Saturday, TMC's national general secretary Abhishek Banerjee and CPI leader Binoy Viswam demanded Vaishnaw’s resignation.

On Sunday, Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, also asked for him to resign. She joined those referring to the standard practice of railway ministers offering resignation after tragedies of even smaller scale, in the past.

In 1956, then Railway Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri offered to resign from the post. The first time, it was after a rail accident in Andhra Pradesh led to the death of over 100 passengers, but then PM Jawahar Lal Nehru refused to accept his resignation. The second time that year, however, after an accident in Tamil Nadu, Shastri put in his papers again and this time his resignation was accepted. While several other Railway Ministers have offered their resignations in the last many decades, after catastrophic accidents, only few have been accepted by the government in power.

Meanwhile, PM Modi chaired a high-level meeting, along with Home Minister Amit Shah to look into the accident.

Kharge Raises Questions

Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge, who has been a railway minister in the past, put out a series of tweets alleging lapses by the ministry. Here are some of his questions.

  • 3 lakh posts are vacant in the Railways, including top officers who are recruited by the PM. Why were they not filled in 9 years?

  • The Railway Board itself has recently admitted that long working hours of loco pilots due to acute shortage of manpower is the main reason for the increasing number of accidents. Then why were the posts not filled?

  • The Principal Chief Operating Manager of South Western Railway Zone had warned about repairing the signaling system on 8 February 2023, citing a tragedy in Mysore in which two trains were saved from collision. Why didn't the Ministry of Railways implement it?

  • The Parliamentary Standing Committee in its 323rd report criticised the Railways for the "disregard" shown by the Railway Board towards the recommendations of the Commission of Railway Safety (CRS). It was said that CRS investigates only 8-10 percent of accidents, why was CRS not strengthened?

  • According to the latest CAG audit report, between 2017-18 and 2020-21, almost 7 out of 10 train accidents happened due to train derailment. In 2017-21, there was zero testing of rails and welds (Track Maintenance) for safety in East Coast Railway. Why was this ignored?

  • Why has there been a huge decline in the amount given for track renewal works?

  • The train collision avoidance system developed by India's Research Designs and Standards Organization (RDSO) in 2011 was renamed by the Modi government as "Kavach" and was demonstrated by the Railway Minister himself in March 2022. Still why has Kavach been implemented on 4 percent of the routes till now?

Lack of Anti-Collision 'Kavach'

In March 2022, Vaishnaw had released videos testing the indigenous automatic train protection system, developed by the Indian Railways, termed as ‘Kavach’.

The test was declared successful by the government, and a press release was put out, stating, “The ‘Kavach’ system initiated the automatic braking system and halted the locomotives 380 metres apart. Also, crossing the red signal was tested; however, the locomotive did not cross the red signal as ‘Kavach’ necessitated the application of brakes automatically.”

On the question of roll-out of the ‘Kavach’ technology, the press release said that “2,000 km of network will be brought under Kavach for safety and capacity augmentation in 2022-23. Around 34,000 Kms of network will be brought under Kavach.”

On being asked by media whether Kavach failed to perform in the trains involved in the Odisha tragedy, the Indian Railways spokesperson Amitabh Sharma clarified that “Kavach was not available on this route.”

This raised bigger questions on why Kavach hasn’t been made available across most railway networks in the country by now.

On 29 March, 2023, a year after testing Kavach, Vaishnaw told the parliament that a total of 1,455 kilometers of rail route (RKm) network has been brought under Kavach, and work has begun on Delhi-Mumbai and Delhi-Howrah networks, which as per the minister’s statement should be completed by March 2024. However, questions of delay, and speed at which the Kavach is being implemented have come center-stage in light of the Odisha tragedy.

Banerjee questioned why the anti-collision device was not present in the train. “Had the device been installed, this would not have happened,” Banerjee said, while standing to next to Vaishnaw.

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