View from India: Triple train collision the worst in several decades

The triple train collision in the Balasore district of Odisha in eastern India has turned out to be one of India’s deadliest railway crashes.

The crash, which took place on 2 June, involved two passenger trains and a stationary goods train. The Coromandel Shalimar Express, heading to Chennai, derailed. It was running at full speed and collided with a goods train on an adjacent track. Given its speed, many of its coaches flipped over on to a third track. Three of the coaches collided with the oncoming Bangalore Howrah Superfast Express on the third track. Over 288 people are feared dead and over 1,000 have been left injured as a result of the train tragedy.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has visited the railway accident site and the hospital where the injured underwent treatment. Modi has assured the public that no stone will be left unturned to provide all possible medical help to those injured. He said that the government stands with the bereaved family members who have lost their loved ones and lauded the local citizens who turned up in large numbers for blood donation to help those injured.

Describing it as a monumental tragedy, Modi said that the railway is working to provide rescue and relief, as well as to ensure quick restoration of rail tracks. Interacting with the local authorities, personnel from the disaster relief forces and railway officials, Modi emphasised a “whole of government” approach to mitigate the tragedy. He tweeted: “Distressed by the train accident in Odisha. In this hour of grief, my thoughts are with the bereaved families. May the injured recover soon. Spoke to Railway Minister @AshwiniVaishnaw and took stock of the situation. Rescue ops are underway at the site of the mishap and all possible assistance is being given to those affected.”

The railways have announced that they would pay compensation of 10 lakh rupees to the families of the deceased, 2 lakh rupees to the severely injured and 50,000 rupees to those with minor injuries. Further, ex gratia compensation of 2 lakh rupees from the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund (PMNRF) would go towards the families of the deceased and 50,000 rupees to the injured.

Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal, further announced that families of deceased passengers from West Bengal would be given 5 lakh rupees, 1 lakh rupees to those who had been critically injured and 50,000 rupees to those with minor injuries. Both the chief minister of Odisha and the chief minister of Tamil Nadu declared a day of mourning and the latter announced a compensation of 5 lakh rupees to the kin of those who had died.  

Although emergency help has been extended, a lot still needs to be done to rebuild the lives of those devastated in the train accident, considered India’s deadliest for more than three decades. Many people came forward to donate blood and the country as a whole has expressed its solidarity in this grim situation. Reliance Foundation has pledged to support the victims. The non-profit, stewarded by Nita Ambani, has said that it will support the affected throughout their journey of healing and rebuilding. Gautam Adani has committed to provide free education to the children who have lost parents in the deadly train crash. Vijay Shekhar Sharma, CEO of Paytm, took to Twitter to do his bit for the tragedy, asking users: “Contribute to Odisha Train tragedy victims through Paytm. We will match all your contributions rupee to rupee. Thanks for your contributions.” Crowdfunding platform Donatekart has urged people to donate grocery kits and food. Its Facebook page states: “Our dedicated partner NGOs are on the ground, providing essential supplies and support to impacted individuals.”

The triple train collision has shaken the country and has made global news. As many as 288 people lost their life in the horrific accident and over 1,000 have been injured. To worsen matters, there are still approximately 83 unclaimed bodies. Multiple options are being tapped to identify the dead, even as families are frantically searching for their dear ones. 

The railways are leveraging Sanchar Saathi, an AI-powered website to identify the unclaimed bodies. In a strange coincidence, the railway minister Ashwini Vaishnaw launched Sanchar Saathi only last month. The portal’s services include a Central Equipment Identity Register (CEIR) for blocking stolen or lost mobiles, helping shed some light on any mobile connections registered in an individual’s name. It offers ASTR or Artificial Intelligence and Facial Recognition-powered Solution for Telecom and SIM Subscriber Verification to identify fraudulent subscribers. Essentially, Sanchar Saathi is a tool to identity theft, forged KYC (know your customer) and banking frauds that happen through the misuse of mobile phones. However, it has also become a handy tool during the disaster. Officials have been quoted saying that Sanchar Saathi AI tools have been deployed to identify 64 bodies, wherein it was successful in 45 cases.

A team from the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) was present at site. They tried to take thumb impressions of the deceased to identify them. It didn’t work with everyone, as the skin around the thumb of many victims was so damaged making it difficult for fingerprints. UIDAI is a statutory authority established in January 2009 by the Government of India (GoI). UIDAI was created to issue Unique Identification numbers (UID), named Aadhaar, a 12-digit individual identification number for all the residents of India.

Other efforts include mobile SIM-card triangulation to identify the unclaimed bodies. Cellphone impressions around the accident sites are expected to give some clue about the people. Nearby towers will help track the last calls from the phone, possibly helping to match the phone with the unidentified victim.

It’s a mammoth task for clearing the crumbled coaches and straighten the tracks. Eight teams, each comprising 70 personnel and headed by an officer, executed the operations. The railway operations have completed their rescue and restoration work in 51 hours. What is remarkable is that rail services have resumed following repair of the damaged tracks on the to-and-fro lines. Railway minister Vaishnaw waved and wished the passengers and crew a safe journey. The first train that began in the aftermath of the disaster was the Howrah-Puri Vande Bharat Express train.

What this accident means for the technology of trains is a big question. Many more skilled engineers are probably needed to more thoroughly monitor safety operations. Perhaps mock disaster trials and simulations could be conducted to prepare railway staff for similar incidents. Hopefully, though, that won’t be necessary for years to come.

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