India’s Trains Resume Service Near Deadly Crash in Balasore

A coal train, honking its horn in the dark, was the first of dozens of trains to rumble through the Bahanaga Bazar train station, site of one of the deadliest rail disasters in Indian history, as railway lines reopened there after midnight on Monday. .

The restoration of a vital rail route, overseen by senior railway officials and a crowd of spectators, was a move to defuse the disruption of a devastating crash that killed at least 275 people and injured more than 1,200. Workers toil over the weekend to clean up the wreck and repair the damaged rail.

But with his return, officials are concentrating their efforts on a forlorn challenge: identifying the roughly 100 victims whose bodies were unclaimed in morgues and hospitals.

Some 170 bodies had been identified as of Monday, said Pradeep Jena, Odisha’s chief state secretary, adding they were still receiving calls from helplines set up for families of missing persons. Mr Jena said officials hoped to arrive at a final death toll by Monday evening, but officials were taking no chances.

“Every paper, every hospital, every reconciliation is so important,” he said.

“Our job is not finished,” said Ashwini Vaishnaw, India’s minister of railways, after the resumption of rail services. “We need to ensure that family members of missing persons contact them as early as possible.”

To help identify them, the state government on Monday released a 168-page document online with pictures of the people who died, along with a list of people who were hospitalized.

Suspended rail services have prevented the victims’ families from traveling to Balasore, in Odisha state, and picking up their loved ones. Some arrived via a special train service, others by Monday morning cars provided by their local authorities. Others are still traveling.

For relatives arriving in the state, the horror of finding loved ones is often compounded by the dismemberment of some of the bodies, which are difficult to identify.

Two men traveled hundreds of miles from their home state of West Bengal to the main hospital in Bhubaneswar, the capital of Odisha, where more than 100 bodies are kept. One, Ayuf SK, is looking for his brother’s body, while the other, Dilip Kumar Sabar, is looking for his brother-in-law.

But an altercation broke out outside the hospital on Sunday after the two men said the same body was their loved one. Without sufficient evidence, the police refused to hand over the body to any of the men, and state authorities agreed to carry out a DNA test.

Mr Jena said that the state would use all legal avenues to identify bodies. But in the worst-case scenario, it is possible that some unidentified bodies will have to be cremated, he said, although a decision has not yet been made.

Authorities allowed some stranded trains, limited to speeds of around six miles per hour, to pass through the site Monday, but the two affected side tracks remain inactive. At least 50 trains crossed the restored line, said Mr. Vaishnaw.

Officials have shared preliminary information about the sequence of events in the three-way crash: Around 7:00 pm local time on Friday, a high-speed passenger train rammed into a parked freight train, derailing several cars. The derailed carriage then smashed into a second passenger train, causing a horrendous kink of metal and a shattered body.

Questions around responsibility spilled over into another day when opposition politicians, calling for Vaishnaw’s resignation, accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government of not doing enough to ensure the safety of the railways.

“Consistent flawed decision-making has made traveling by rail unsafe and in turn has exacerbated the problems of our people,” said Mallikarjun Kharge, an opposition leader in Parliament, in an open letter to Mr. Modi, added that it was “incumbent on the government” to determine the reasons behind the incident.

Railway authorities have requested that the case be handled by India’s main investigative agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation, Vaishnaw told reporters on Sunday. The agency usually handles high-profile criminal cases, including fraud and corruption, and details were not provided about why they were being handled.

Officials have zeroed in on a malfunctioning electronic signaling system as the cause of the crash, but have not ruled out sabotage. Authorities are investigating whether negligence played a role; they have yet to identify a suspect. Mr Vaishnaw told reporters on Sunday he would leave it to investigators to share more details.

The disaster has ruined the government’s efforts and festivities. Modi, who in recent years has devoted spending to overhauling the network, is rolling out a new fleet of electric trains and demonstrating improvements to rail safety.

More than 20 million passengers daily take trains on India’s rail network, one of the largest in the world, and the number of serious train derailments and accidents has decreased in recent decades. But a recent audit found that spending on safety measures was down, including repairs for more than 13,000 old trains and track maintenance.

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