People try to escape from toppled compartments, following the deadly collision of two trains, in Balasore, India June 2, 2023, in this screen grab obtained from a video.
Chaos and hundreds injured after deadly train collision in India
00:58 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

One of the worst train accidents in India’s history is raising questions over the safety of the country’s massive and outdated rail network, as the government invests in its modernization.

More than 280 people were killed and over 1,000 injured in a three-way crash involving two passenger trains and a freight train in eastern Odisha state on Friday, officials said.

As authorities continue to tally casualties and search for survivors, investigators will likely probe to what extent the country’s aging railway infrastructure contributed to the tragedy.

India’s extensive rail network, one of the largest in the world, was built more than 160 years ago under British colonial rule. Today, it runs about 11,000 trains every day over 67,000 miles of tracks in the world’s most populous nation.

The aftermath of a three-way train crash in India's eastern Odisha state.

Authorities have ordered a “high-level inquiry” to determine what caused the collision, though a senior state railway official told CNN they suspected it was due to a traffic signaling failure.

The official said the Coromandel Express, which was traveling from Shalimar to Chennai, hit a freight train, derailing several coaches into the opposite track. The Howrah Express, which was traveling in the opposite direction from Yesvantpur, slammed into the overturned carriages at high speed.

A signaling failure can occur either due to a technical malfunction or human error, as traffic signals are often handled by personnel in every station, a station superintendent in Odisha told CNN.

Decaying infrastructure is often cited as a cause for traffic delays and numerous train accidents in India. Though government statistics show that accidents and derailments have been on the decline in recent years, they are still tragically common.

More than 16,000 people were killed in nearly 18,000 railway accidents across the country in 2021. According to the National Crime Records, most railway accidents – 67.7% – were due to falls from trains and collisions between trains and people on the track. Train-on-train collisions are less common.

Upgrading India’s transportation infrastructure is a key priority for Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his push to create a $5 trillion economy by 2025. For the fiscal year that started in April, Modi’s government raised capital spending on airports, road and highway construction and other infrastructure projects to $122 billion, or 1.7% of its GDP.

A significant portion of that spending is targeted at introducing more high-speed trains to its notoriously slow railways. India’s new budget includes a $29 billion allocation for railway development, according to Albright Stonebridge Group, a business-strategy firm.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is seen visiting the crash site on Saturday.

An ambitious National Rail Plan, announced in 2021, envisages that all major cities in north, west and south India should be connected by high-speed rail. Cities between 300 kilometers and 700 kilometers apart with a population of at least one million are being prioritized.

India has enlisted the help of Japanese technology, engineers and finance to assist in the construction of its first line, a 508-kilometer link between Mumbai and Ahmedabad in western India. A further 12 routes could gain high-speed links over the coming decades if all proposals come to fruition.

Several major projects have just finished, or are close to completion, including the construction of the world’s tallest railway bridge in the Jammu and Kashmir region. Modi had been set to inaugurate a new high-speed train, the Vande Bharat Express, on Saturday before the accident happened.

While the government is in the process of updating trains, tracks and stations with new technology to prevent dangerous crashes, one of the trains involved in Friday’s accident was not believed to have an anti-collision device on board, a former railway minister said.

“There was no anti-collision device on the train, as far as I know. Had the device been on the train, this would not have happened,” Mamata Banerjee told reporters on Saturday.

India has seen several similar deadly incidents involving train accidents in recent decades.

At least 102 people were killed when a passenger train derailed in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh as it tried to cross tracks washed away by a flood in 2005. Six years later, scores were killed when a train jumped tracks in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.

The death toll from Friday’s crash has already surpassed that of another infamous incident in 2016, when more than 140 people were killed in a derailment in northern Uttar Pradesh state. The same year, Modi announced huge investments in India’s railway system aimed at improving safety and connectivity.

CNN’s Akshaya Kumar Sahoo, Rhea Mogul, Manveena Suri, and Ben Jones contributed to this report.