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CBI to take over probe into Odisha train crash, as loco traffic resumed on repaired tracks

CBI to take over probe into Odisha train crash, as loco traffic resumed on repaired tracks

Balasore/New Delhi: The CBI is prepared to take over the probe into the Balasore train accident, and Monday morning's passage of the first semi-high-speed Vande Bharat train signalled the return of train traffic on the vital route uniting eastern and southern India.

In connection with the accident on Friday, the Government Railway Police (GRP) has filed a case under several sections of the IPC and Railway Act, including those relating to causing death by negligence.

The Congress and other opposition parties questioned the need to hand over the case to the CBI but officials stressed that findings of a preliminary probe like "deliberate interference" in the system necessitated the investigation by a professional agency.

The railways have also launched a safety drive with a slew of directions to all zonal headquarters on the security of station relay rooms and compounds housing signalling equipment, including "double locking arrangements" after an initial probe showed "signalling interference" as a suspected reason behind the Odisha triple-train accident.

In accordance with the procedure, the CBI will take over the Balasore GRP case number 64 registered by Odisha Police on June 3, official sources said, adding it is likely to be allotted to Special Crime Unit at the Delhi Headquarters.

The case was registered under various IPC sections like 37 and 38 (related to causing hurt and endangering lives through rash or negligent action), 304A (causing death by negligence) and 34 (common intention), and sections 153 (unlawful and negligent action endangering lives of Railway passengers), 154 and 175 (endangering lives) of the Railways Act.

Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw had announced on Sunday evening that a CBI probe had been recommended into the three-train crash.

The crash on Friday involving two passenger trains and a goods train killed 275 people and injured more than 1,100, while the movement of goods and passenger trains on the busy route was also disrupted.

Around 51 hours after the triple train crash and barely five hours after the damaged tracks were restored, train movement resumed late Sunday night with Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, who has been camping at the site to oversee restoration work, and other senior officials present at the site.

A coal-laden goods train from Vizag port to Rourkela Steel Plant was the first to run on the route around 10.40 pm on Sunday. Vaishnaw waved to the train drivers.

The first high-speed passenger train - Howrah-Puri Vande Bharat Express - passed through Balasore on Monday morning, with wreckage from the accident still lying near the tracks and workers cleaning the site. The train slowed down to a crawl as it passed by the site of Friday night's train crash near Bahanga Bazar station.

The Howrah-Puri Express and Bhubaneswar-New Delhi Sampark Kranti Express also passed the route.

Railway officials had earlier indicated that possible "sabotage" and tampering with the electronic interlocking system, which detects the presence of trains, led to the accident involving the Shalimar-Chennai Central Coromandel Express, the Bengaluru-Howrah Superfast Express and a goods train.

Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi saying the CBI cannot fix accountability for technical, institutional and political failures Kharge also said "all the empty safety claims" of Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw have now been "exposed" and the government must bring to light the real reasons that caused this grave accident, which he described as one of the worst in Indian history.

In his four-page letter to Modi, the Congress chief said there is serious concern among the common passengers about the deterioration in safety of railways "The CBI, or any other law enforcement agency, cannot fix accountability for technical, institutional and political failures. In addition, they lack the technical expertise in railway safety, signalling, and maintenance practices," the Congress chief said.

Targeting the government, party general secretary communications in-charge Jairam Ramesh said, "Even before the Commissioner of Railway Safety has submitted his report on Balasore train disaster, a CBI inquiry is announced. This is nothing but headlines management having failed to meet deadlines."

Citing the government decision to hand over the probe of the Patna-Indore Express train accident, in which 150 people died, to the National Investigation Agency (NIA), Ramesh pointed out that "Now remember this chronology, on November 20, 2016, Indore-Patna Express derails near Kanpur. Over 150 people lose their lives. On January 23, 2017, then Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu writes to Union Home Minister asking for a NIA probe into this accident. On February 24, 2017, Prime Minister (Narendra Modi) says Kanpur train accident is a conspiracy. On October 21, 2018, newspapers report NIA will not file any charge sheet in the derailment. June 6, 2023, still no official news on NIA final report on Kanpur derailment. Zero accountability!"

Rejecting a CBI probe, Odisha units of 12 political parties, including Congress and Left parties, demanded the formation of a Special Investigation Team and the resignation of Vaishnaw to pave the way for an impartial inquiry.

The parties, including Congress, CPI, CPI(M), CPI(ML) Liberation, CPI(ML) Red Star, All India Forward Bloc, Samajwadi Party, RJD, NCP, RPI, AAP and Samata Kranti Dal.

These parties held a joint meeting and passed a resolution stating that they rejected a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), accusing the central agency of "working at the behest of the BJP."

Reacting to questions on the need for a CBI probe when the Commissioner of Railway Safety (CRS) was already probing the incident, an official indicated that the preliminary inquiry revealed the need for a more thorough investigation.

"Lot of information has come during the course of the investigation. Various kinds of information have been made available which required a professional investigative agency," he said.

The accident in which a speeding Coromandel Express crashed into a stationary goods train on the loop line instead of travelling on the main line indicated issues with the electronic interlocking system which changed the route of the train and led to the collision.

"Unless there is deliberate interference in the system, it is impossible that a route set for the main line is switched to the loop line," he said.

Meanwhile, in a letter to general managers of all zones, the Railway Board has directed that a safety drive should be launched immediately with a special focus on all 'goomties' (rooms along tracks) housing signalling equipment within station limits.

It said they should be checked and it should be ensured they have "double locking arrangements."

The board said that "all relay rooms in stations should be checked and ensured for the proper working of 'double locking arrangement'."

"It should also be checked and ensured that there is data logging and generation of SMS alert for opening/closing of the door of these relay rooms," it said.

"During safety drive these items should be checked at 100 per cent of the above locations, further these items should be super-checked by officers for 10 per cent of the above locations," it said.

The Commissioner of Railway Safety (CRS) on Monday recorded the statements of injured engine driver Gunanidhi Mohanty and his assistant Hajari Behera, who are undergoing treatment at AIIMS Bhubaneswar, officials said. Both were rescued from the Shalimar-Chennai Central Coromandel Express and are currently stable.

"Both drivers are stable. While Mohanty was taken out of the ICU on Monday, Behera is awaiting head surgery," South Eastern Railway (SER) Chief Public Relations Officer (CPRO) Aditya Choudhury told PTI.

The Odisha government said it will bear the transportation cost for ferrying the bodies of the accident victims to different states.

Chief Secretary PK Jena said 170 bodies out of 275 have so far been identified in Balasore and Bhubaneswar. He added that death certificates will be provided at the earliest and will be sent electronically or through speed post to the families of the deceased.

The state government has announced two toll-free numbers — 1800345 0061/1929 — to help those looking for their missing relatives.

The National Disaster Response Force on Monday ended its rescue operation with the withdrawal of all its nine teams, officials said. The force rescued 44 victims and retrieved 121 bodies from the spot since the teams were deployed after the accident on June 2, they said.

With PTI inputs

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