Interlocking technology that failed to lock
Could this technology have failed to prevent the disaster, or was it manipulated? Equally, is it possible to manipulate the system manually?
The horrific Odisha train accident, which resulted in the loss of 288 lives and over 1,100 injuries, raises concerns about the effectiveness and vulnerability of the electronic interlocking system used by the Indian Railways. Could this technology have failed to prevent the disaster, or was it manipulated? Equally, is it possible to manipulate the system manually?
What is electronic interlocking?
The electronic interlocking system for trains uses advanced technology to control and coordinate train movements on tracks. It acts as a smart traffic controller, connecting and coordinating components or systems. Instead of relying on physical signals and manual switches, electronic interlocking replaces these methods with computerised systems that communicate with trains and trackside equipment. Operators receive instructions through displays or communication devices in their cabins, making the process more efficient and reducing the risk of human error.
How does this help?
By utilizing sensors, computers and communication technology, the electronic interlocking system effectively manages train movements. This system improves safety, capacity, and reliability, ensuring safer and more efficient train travel for passengers and operators alike.
The Balasore Accident
A collision occurred near Bahanaga Bazar station, about 270km south of Kolkata, on June 2, 2023. The incident involved the Coromandel Express, travelling from Shalimar railway station in West Bengal to Chennai, and the Howrah Superfast Express, which was heading from Yesvantpur station in Bengaluru to Howrah. Additionally, there were two stationery goods trains, one at Bahanaga Bazar station and another on an adjacent track that may have suffered minor damage. It has been reported that the Coromandel Express deviated from its track and collided with the rear of the stationary goods train while travelling at a speed of 128km/h (79.5mph). The goods train was carrying iron ore, which likely increased the impact of the collision.
Possibility of Manual Error
Railway Minister feels that the accident happened due to a change in the electronic interlocking system and that only a detailed report from the Commissioner of Railway Safety can ascertain whether the technology failed or if it was manipulated.
Signs of a Foretold Accident
Preliminary reports indicate that human error played a significant role in altering the electronic interlocking system. The findings align with warnings raised by railway officials prior to the incident. In fact, in February 2023, a senior railway officer wrote a letter highlighting serious flaws in the interlocking system and urging immediate action. This officer’s concerns were reinforced by a near-miss on February 8, 2023, when an alert locomotive pilot prevented a major train accident on the Bengaluru-New Delhi Sampark Kranti Express. Unfortunately, the warnings went unheeded, and luck finally ran out in Balasore.
— Text by Ketan Narottam Tanna