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India’s Train Crash: What We Know

A train crash in eastern India on Friday was the country’s worst rail disaster in two decades, killing more than 230 people. It renewed questions about rail safety in a country that has invested heavily in the system in recent years after a long history of deadly crashes.

A passenger train derailed and struck two other trains in the Balasore district of Odisha state, officials said. The state’s chief secretary, Pradeep Jena, said on Saturday that 238 people had been killed in the crash and that 900 more had been injured. With rescue efforts still underway, the toll is likely to rise.

The crash occurred when several cars of a train derailed and hit a second one, the train’s operator, South Eastern Railway, said in a statement. Local officials said that a third train, carrying freight, was ultimately involved, but details of this were not yet clear.

One of the trains involved was a Shalimar-Chennai Coromandel Express train, according to South Eastern Railway. The Coromandel Express service has been known for connecting the biggest cities on India’s east coast at relatively high speed.

The crash occurred near Balasore, a city near the coast in eastern Odisha state (formerly Orissa), which is known for its ancient temples and its history as a 17th-century British seaport. The shoreline along the Bay of Bengal is prone to tropical cyclones, especially in October and November.

Balasore, in the northeast part of the state, has a railway station but is several hours by car to the nearest airport, in Bhubaneswar, Odisha’s capital. May is usually the hottest time of year, and daily high temperatures were around 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the days before the crash.

Officials said that all hospitals in the area were on standby. A day of mourning was declared in Odisha, home to 45 million people, and dozens of trains were canceled.

Often referred to as the lifeline of India’s economy, the country’s vast rail network is one of the world’s largest and is vital to lives and livelihoods in India, particularly in the more rural pockets. Nearly all of India’s rail lines, 98 percent, were built between 1870 and 1930, according to a 2018 study published in the American Economic Review.

The deadliest accident in the history of Indian rail is believed to have been in 1981, when a passenger train derailed as it was crossing a bridge in the state of Bihar. Its cars sank into the Bagmati River, killing an estimated 750 passengers; many victims were never recovered.

Derailments were once frequent, with an average of 475 per year from 1980 to about 2002. They have become much less common, with an average of just over 50 a year in the decade leading up to 2021, according to a paper by railway officials presented at the World Congress on Disaster Management.

Rail safety more generally has improved in recent years, with the total number of serious train accidents dropping steadily to 22 in the 2020 fiscal year from more than 300 annually two decades ago. By 2020, for two years in a row, India had recorded zero passenger deaths in such episodes. It was a first, and the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi hailed it as an achievement. Until 2017, more than 100 passengers were killed every year.

Even so, deadly crashes have persisted. In 2016, 14 train cars derailed in India’s northeast in the middle of the night, killing more than 140 sleeping passengers and injuring 200 others. Officials at the time said a “fracture” in the tracks might have been responsible. In 2017, a late-night derailment in southern India killed at least 36 passengers and injured 40 others.

Friday’s accident was the deadliest at least since a crash in 1999 in West Bengal that killed 285 people.

A main reason for the improved safety was the elimination of thousands of unmanned railway crossings, which Mr. Modi’s government said had been achieved in 2019. The relatively low-level engineering work of building underpasses and posting more signal conductors drastically reduced crashes.

Mr. Modi has made it a priority to improve infrastructure around the country, especially transportation systems. In recent years, the railroads, among the most visible projects for ordinary citizens, have received attention for a series of high-tech initiatives. Mr. Modi has been inaugurating electric medium-range trains and is building a Japanese-style “bullet train” corridor on the west coast to connect Mumbai with Ahmedabad.

The train system, and especially train accidents, have long affected the fortunes of India’s politicians. The cabinet position of railways minister has been one of the most sought after, being both high profile and influential in business and industry. Suresh Prabhu, who is credited with designing New Delhi’s world-class metro system, was pressed into resigning from the post in September 2017 after a series of smaller accidents.

Within hours of Friday’s crash, some opposition politicians were calling for the current minister, Ashwini Vaishnaw, to resign, even before he had managed to reach the site. That Mr. Vaishnaw is also the minister for electronics and information technology suggests that within India’s array of development projects, railways have become less important. But they still command the power to capture public attention like nothing else.

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Mohammad SHiblu

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