India's deadliest train crash in over 20 years

On Friday, India was struck by a horrifying rail crash, and it's the worst accident of its kind in more than 20 years.

India's deadliest train crash in over 20 years
Heavy machinery remove damaged coaches from the railway tracks at the site of a train collision following the accident in Balasore district in the eastern state of Odisha, India, June 4, 2023. Reuters/Adnan Abidi

The backstory: Did you know that India's rail network has been around for over 160 years, dating back to when the British were calling the shots? It's massive, with about 14,000 trains chugging along over some 64,000 kilometers (40,000 miles) of tracks every day.

But here's the not-so-great part – accidents happen quite often. To give you an idea of the scale of the problem, from 2017 to 2021, there were more than 100,000 train-related deaths in India, according to a 2022 report published by the National Crime Records Bureau. The majority of these accidents (over 67%) happened because people fell off trains or there were collisions with pedestrians. Head-on train collisions are rarer, but they can be devastating. But, those kinds of accidents have reduced in recent years, with no passenger deaths recorded between 2019 and 2021.

More recently: Prime Minister Narendra Modi is on a roll, aiming to turbocharge India's economy to US$5 trillion by 2025. To make that happen, he's pumping serious dough into the country's massive train system. Indian Railways, already one of the world's largest train networks, carrying millions of people and billions of tons of cargo every year, is about to get a major boost. That means big investments in high-speed trains and upgrades to the country's railway system. India has already set aside a massive 2.4 trillion rupees (around US$30 billion) in their latest budget just for this.

India has been working on some big projects too. One of them is building the world's tallest railway bridge in Jammu and Kashmir. The grand inauguration of a fancy new high-speed train called the Vande Bharat Express was supposed to happen on Saturday.

The development: On Friday, India was struck by a horrifying train crash, and it's the worst accident of its kind in more than 20 years. The tragic event took place in Balasore, Odisha state, when the Coromandel Express collided with a parked freight train because of a signaling failure, derailing some coaches onto a nearby track. Then, the Howrah Superfast Express hit those coaches from the opposite direction and also derailed. The collision claimed the lives of at least 275 people. The images and videos from the crash site show twisted train cars, broken windows and personal belongings scattered everywhere.

Modi personally visited the crash site to see what could be done and to provide support. The government is also offering compensation to the affected families by giving 1 million rupees (about US$12,000) to the families of those who died. Those injured will get different amounts based on how badly they were hurt. Some state governments are also chipping in with additional financial help.

Key comments:

“We can’t bring back those we have lost, but the government is with them [families] in their grief. This incident is very serious for the government … Whoever is found guilty will be punished severely,” said Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

"This question [on safety] is arising because there has been one incident now. But if you see the data, you will see that there have been no major accidents for years," said a railways ministry spokesperson.

“People were trying to run and escape from the train. The coach in front of me was badly mangled. People were badly trapped. I saw people piled on top of each other. My coach derailed, but thankfully I managed to escape,” said Rohit Raj, a 19-year-old survivor, to CNN. “I was at the bottom of the pile. My hand is injured, it’s hurting a lot, and also the back of my neck. When I came out of the train, I saw someone had lost their hand, someone had lost their limb, someone’s face was disfigured.”

“The cause has been identified and the people responsible for it have been identified,” India’s railways minister, Ashwini Vaishnaw, said on Sunday to Indian news agency ANI, declining to give further details until the government report was released.