Indian officials have appealed to families and relatives of people killed in last week’s train crash in eastern Odisha state to help identify some 100 unclaimed bodies preserved in hospitals and makeshift morgues.
At least 275 people died and more than 1,000 were injured after a passenger train crashed into a stationary freight train and then jumped tracks to hit another commuter train which was travelling in the opposite direction at Balasore junction on Friday evening.
At least 3,000 people, mostly poor migrant labourers, were travelling in the two passenger trains, and it took locals and rescue teams, armed with blowtorches, nearly 24 hours to cut through the rail compartments to rescue the injured and retrieve the dead.
On Tuesday scores of grief-stricken people stood in clusters outside hospitals and improvised mortuaries in Balasore on India’s east coast, watching television screens which displayed images of the victims in the hope of recognising their relatives and loved ones.
A list of the victims was also uploaded on state government websites to facilitate identification, and a free bus service to the crash site was provided by the state government as rail services to the area remained disrupted.
Meanwhile the Commissioner of Railway Safety has launched investigations into the crash, which officials concede was India’s worst this century. Preliminary reports indicated that the crash could have been caused by a signal failure, but Indian Railways has also called in the Central Bureau of Investigation to determine whether sabotage was behind the mishap.
In the meantime opposition leaders have demanded railway minister Ashwani Vaishnaw’s resignation for “ignoring” overall safety concerns and failing to upgrade rail tracks for new high-speed trains as recommended recently in a parliamentary committee report and by the comptroller and auditor general (CAG).
In its audit the CAG had revealed that budgetary allocations for infrastructure development such as rail track renewal to handle increasing traffic and improvement in safety mechanisms had been on the decline under prime minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) government since 2014.
It also said the government’s indigenously developed “Kavach” anti-collision rail device system was underfunded, and that 90 per cent of Indian Railway routes were not equipped with this safety feature.
The CAG also attributed 70 per cent of all rail crashes and derailments to poor track maintenance.
The parliamentary committee, in its December 2022 report, raised concerns over Indian Railways’ lack of safety rules with regard to freight and passenger trains that travelled largely on parallel tracks.
In February 2023, a senior rail official had expressed unease over frequent signal failures, and warned that this could lead to serious incidents.
With 68,043km of track, India operates the world’s fourth largest rail network.