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Signaling error appears to have caused a major train crash in India

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

More than a lot of other nations, India moves by railroads.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The world's most populous country has one of the world's busiest rail systems. Its older trains feature in Bollywood movies. Its newer ones are a symbol of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's economic modernization. So how did three trains collide, killing at least 275 people?

INSKEEP: Journalist Shalu Yadav has been following this story from New Delhi.

Welcome to the program.

SHALU YADAV: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Hadn't India just been spending a lot of money upgrading the rail network? I've been reading about this.

YADAV: Yes, Steve. And in recent years the number of accidents have gone down because Modi government has spent billions of dollars to modernize the system. But even so, Indian railways remain a huge work in progress. You got to remember, Steve, this is one of the largest and oldest railways networks in the world - most of it built by the British. And so maintenance is a bit of a Herculean task, even if you're spending lots of money. And Prime Minister Modi has prioritized high-speed trains in particular as part of his idea of connecting India faster. But some critics say that that's come at the expense of maintaining the older trains and the system that they run on.

INSKEEP: Oh, this is interesting because from the images of this terrible wreckage, these look like the classic colorful older Indian trains. Are the older ones on...

YADAV: Yes.

INSKEEP: ...Completely different safety systems?

YADAV: Well, most aspects of the older trains, I would say, remain on the older safety system. Not much upgrading has happened to accommodate even the high-speed trains. Now, India's railway minister has hinted that a signal failure is a likely cause that led to this disaster, but he did not rule out a human error.

INSKEEP: OK.

YADAV: Authorities say that both trains had approached Balasore District Station under a green signal, indicating it was all safe, but it went horribly wrong. A passenger train en route the southern city of Chennai derailed after it rammed into a stationary freight train. Its coaches that fell on the opposite track then got hit by another passenger train that was coming in high speed from the other side...

INSKEEP: Wow.

YADAV: ...Leading to the worst train disaster this country has seen in two decades, Steve.

INSKEEP: How important is Indian train service, whether it's upgraded or not?

YADAV: Pretty important. It's, in fact, called the lifeline of the country, as it ferries over 25 million people every day. And it connects this vast country of 1.4 billion people. It's often, you know, the cheapest and fastest medium to get around for most people in the country, especially the working class who depend on it to get to the - you know, their workplace from villages to the cities. Even milk supplies and petrol supplies depend on trains. And many of the families of the victims and the injured, Steve - they are still dependent on train services, too, to find their loved ones. And with that service disrupted, some are now taking long journeys by road to reach the spot where officials say that over a hundred bodies are still unclaimed or unidentified.

INSKEEP: How's the recovery effort going?

YADAV: Well, it's still ongoing, in full swing as we speak, Steve. It's taken over a thousand rescue workers who've been working over 24/7, you know, of - since Friday night with heavy machinery to try and clear the tons of debris that lay on the tracks. Officials say that the operation should be back to normal by Tuesday night or Wednesday, Steve.

INSKEEP: Journalist Shalu Yadav is in New Delhi.

Thank you so much.

YADAV: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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