Odisha Train Crash: Dissent Note By Probe Panel Member Hints at Coverup

Questions are also being asked about a near disaster in February 2023, when a failure of the railways signalling system sent a passenger train on a collision course with a goods train.

New Delhi: Alongside a preliminary report that five railway officials submitted on the Balasore triple train tragedy pointing to a faulty signal as a probable cause, one of the five also submitted a ‘dissent note’ which hints at the possibility of record-tampering with a view to covering up the sequence of events leading to the accident.

The note, viewed by The Wire, is signed by A.K. Mahanta, a senior section engineer of the signals and communications department of the railways at Balasore.

Titled ‘Dissent note regarding joint finding report on derailment at BNBR yard on 02.06.2023’, the one page handwritten and signed note is dated June 3, 2023 and says, “I did not agree with point no-4 [of the preliminary report] which mention as the point 17 A was found set for up loop line. Based on observation from Data logger report the point 17 was set for normal side. It may be reverse after derailment (sic).”

Point no. 4 of the preliminary report says, “Point no. 17 A was found set for up loop line (in reverse condition) of BNBR station at km no 255/13-15”.

Mahanta’s dissent note goes on to add, “The point of derailment [was] before the LC [level crossing] gate 94 that is before point 17 A.”

Data logger holds the key

What Mahanta essentially says is that while the preliminary report said the switch or Point 17 A (responsible for the train changing direction) was set for the loop line and the Coromandel Express accordingly entered the loop line at 128 kmph, Mahanta says the data logger – the equivalent of a black box as far as the India Railways is concerned – says otherwise. The switch was set “for normal side”, meaning the train was meant to go straight ahead, he says. 

He also goes on to make another startling claim: “It [Point 17] may have been reversed after the derailment.”

It is not clear whether Mahanta is hinting at a cover-up when he says that the switch may have been reset, but experts are clear. The data logger which “monitors and records all activities and event in the signalling system of a railway station” holds the mystery to understand what happened on the Bhadrak-Kharagpur section of South Eastern Railway that led to the tragedy, they say.

The data logger can help recreate the circumstances and there is little scope for suppressing or tampering with its data, officials add. 

The preliminary report had said that the “signal was given and taken off for up mainline but this train entered into up loop line and dashed with goods train…”

Officials rule out sabotage

Though the Railway Board – presumably at the government’s urging – has handed over investigations to the Central Bureau of Investigation, officials The Wire spoke to said sabotage can be ruled out as a cause of this accident. They say that only two persons have access to the signal relay room. “The station manager has one set of keys and the signal maintainer the second. The signal room can only be opened when both the locks are opened together. The room is a secure, heavily guarded room with no scope for outsiders to enter. And the relay can only be set from inside this room. Besides, only someone with knowledge of the signalling system can make a change to the switch. So sabotage is extremely difficult. And if an attempt is made to tamper with the wiring from the outside, the signal will turn red. A signal isn’t a fish plate that can be removed,” one railway official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Wire.

But the officials are also questioning the validity of Mahanta’s dissent note. “Mahanta was one of the five signatories to the preliminary report submitted to the Railway Board on June 2… If he did not agree, he should not have signed it. The dissent note appears to be an afterthought. He should have noted his findings in the main report itself…” 

Curiously, Mahanta’s dissent note also says that the derailment actually happened before it switched to the loop line, at the level crossing gate 94, “that is before point 17 A”. 

However, officials The Wire spoke to say Mahanta’s second claim – that the train derailed before it entered the loop line – is also improbable. “The train log clearly shows it entered the loop at 128 kmph and went to zero within seconds. If the train derailed at the level crossing, it would not have entered the loop and that too at such speed. Besides, there would have been evidence of derailment on the ballast, the rails, and the wheels. As it is, the engine jumped over the goods train which indicates a head-on collision.”

CBI role questioned

Asked to respond to claims made in the dissent note,  a spokesperson for South Eastern Railways told The Wire, “We are waiting for the report of the chief commissioner of railway safety, which will be a holistic and comprehensive report. These are only interim reports.”

While the opposition Congress has questioned the speed with which the government has brought the CBI in, former government officials too have flagged the unusual nature of this move when – as per the railways own admission – a thorough internal look at the derailment has yet to happen.

“I feel somewhat surprised that the Railways should hastily announce a probe by the CBI , suggesting the possibility of sabotage, without the railway safety regulator having an opportunity to look into the technical aspects of the accident,” E.A.S. Sarma, a former Union revenue secretary noted in a letter to rail minister Ashwini Vaishnaw on Monday, “To me, it appears to be a move to mislead the public about the larger issues of failure in governance at the level of the Ministry of Railways,” he added.

‘Warning not heeded’ when earlier collision due to signal failure was averted

While there has been some discussion about the fact that the ‘Kavach’ anti-collision system – which Vaishnaw and Prime Minister Modi have promoted as their contribution to passenger safety – has yet to be implemented in 97% of the country’s trains, experts say the railways also needs to examine whether faults in its Block Proving Axle Counters (BPAC) system may have contributed to the Balasore collision.

The BPAC system “ensures that the track section is empty before permitting another train in that section, eliminates human error and controls safe movement of trains between stations,” says the website of a private BPAC vendor, one of many that supply the railways with what is meant to be a fail safe system.

On the ground, however, the system may not be working as planned.

In his letter, Sarma has drawn the minister’s attention to media reports about a February 2023 note written by a senior railway official flagging a near collision between two trains in the Mysore division because of faulty signalling equipment. “There are serious flaws in the system where the route of despatch gets altered after a train starts on signals with correct appearance of route in the panel. This contravenes the essence and basic principles of inter-locking,” the principal chief operation officer of the South Western Railways wrote to headquarters on February 9 this year.

Sarma says the February 2023 letter “was an alert that should have woken up the eyes of the Railway Board to the possibility of the BPAC system failing at times. What action did the Railway Board take on such an important alert? Had the Board acted on it on time, subsequent accidents could perhaps have been avoided, especially when more and more super-fast trains are hurling across the length and the breadth of the country.”