Rescue workers sift through wreckage at the accident site of a three-train collision near Balasore, about 200 km (125 miles) from the state capital Bhubaneswar in the eastern state of Odisha, on June 3, 2023. At least 288 people were killed and more than 850 injured in a horrific three-train collision in India, officials said on June 3, the country's deadliest rail accident in more than 20 years. (Photo by Dibyangshu SARKAR / AFP)
New Delhi/Balasore: A CBI team on Tuesday began an investigation into allegations of criminal negligence leading to the Balasore railway accident involving three trains, with officials saying the agency may take views of rail safety experts to get to the bottom of the case.
A team of six CBI officials led by Joint Director Special Crime Viplav Kumar Choudhry reached the accident site at Bahanaga Bazar Railway Station on Tuesday. The team was accompanied by railway officials, they said.
The team inspected the main line and loop line and also went to the signal room where it met railway officials.
The CBI will soon start questioning the officers present at the Bahanaga station including Assistant Station Master SB Mohanty and other personnel manning the signals and track upkeep, they said.
Following a mandatory notification from the Department of Personnel and Training for handing over the probe to the CBI, the central agency registered its FIR at 2.15 PM on Tuesday.
The registration of an FIR is the starting point of the CBI investigation because the agency cannot collect any document or material, question witnesses, record statements or conduct searches without it, they said.
The central probe agency was roped in by the Ministry of Railways after a preliminary inquiry flagged possible tampering with the electronic interlocking system, which detects the presence of trains, and officials suspected "sabotage" behind the Friday accident.
"The Central Bureau of Investigation has registered a case on the request of the Ministry of Railways, consent of the Odisha government and further orders from DoPT (Government of India) relating to the train accident involving Coromandel Express, Yashwantpur-Howrah Express and a goods train at Bahanaga Bazar in the state of Odisha on 2nd June," the CBI spokesperson said.
The agency, which has limited expertise in handling probes into railway accidents, may need the help of rail security and forensic experts to get to the bottom of the case, the officials said.
The CBI took over the FIR registered by the GRP ( Government Railway Police) Cuttack on June 3 under IPC sections 337, 338, 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.
With questions being raised on assigning the investigation in a railway accident case to the CBI, former CBI Director AP Singh told PTI, "In this case, the CBI may not have expertise on technical issues, but they can always co-opt Railways Safety Experts who become part of the investigation team and will be able to explain how things move and where criminal negligence could have taken place."
Singh said the CBI would examine all the witnesses, visit the site, and with the help of the opinion of forensics and Railway safety experts, come to the "right conclusion".
"In terms of public perception, too, it is essential that an independent agency carries out the probe to avoid allegations of internal coverups. The CBI not only has the job of pinpointing lapses, but it also suggests how such incidents can be stopped in the future. This approach makes the CBI a suitable choice for investigating the case," he said.
The FIR also stated many deaths were due to injuries caused by collision and electrocution after coming in contact with the overhead low-tension line.
The overhead wires snapped as coaches which toppled over in the triple train accident brought down electrical poles, officials said.
According to the procedure, the CBI re-registers the local police case as its own FIR and starts the probe. It can add or remove a charge from the FIR in its charge sheet filed after its investigation.
Talking to reporters in Odisha on Sunday, Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw had said, "We have recommended a CBI probe into the triple train accident...."
The Railway Board Member (Operations and Business Development) wrote to the Centre on June 4 seeking a CBI probe.
The Odisha government gave its consent to the CBI to conduct the investigation through a letter on Monday.
It was on Tuesday that the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) issued the mandatory notification to the CBI giving the government's go-ahead to start the investigation following which the agency swung into action and registered the FIR.
The crash involving Bengaluru-Howrah Superfast Express, Shalimar-Chennai Central Coromandel Express and a goods train laden with iron ore occurred around 7 PM on Friday near the Bahanaga Bazar station in Balasore district.
The accident, one of the worst train tragedies in the country, claimed 278 lives and left more than 1,100 people injured.
Both passenger trains were at high speed, and experts have cited it as one of the main reasons for the high number of casualties. Railway officials have stressed that the trains were not over-speeding and were running under the permissible limit.
A forensics team, which is accompanying the CBI officials, also spoke to signal room employees and sought information about the functioning of different equipment.
Khurda Road Division DRM Rinkesh Roy had suspected "physical tampering" with the signaling system.
"The CBI will probe all aspects. It is gathering information and the Railways will extend full cooperation," said South Eastern Railway chief public relations officer Aditya Choudhury.