NEW DELHI, India — A signal error that sent a train down the wrong tracks was to blame for the train derailment in eastern India that killed nearly 300 people and injured hundreds more, officials said Sunday.
The likely cause of the deadly crash emerged as families from across India rushed to the site for news of missing loved ones as rescue workers combed through the mangled wreckage of overturned railway cars.
Officials were also rushing to restore train service, as the disaster raised new concerns about safety and modernization in the world’s most populous country, where the rail network serves as a lifeline.
Railways Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw said an error in the electronic signaling system led the train to wrongly change tracks, causing the Friday night crash.
“The change in the electronic interlocking caused this accident and whoever did it and whatever are the reasons will be known after investigation” Vaishnaw said in an interview with India’s ANI news agency at the scene of the disaster on Sunday.
A preliminary report signed by railway officials and obtained by NBC News found that a signal was given to the high-speed Coromandel Express to enter the main track line, but that signal was later taken off. The train then entered another line, known as the loop line, and crashed into a goods train parked there.
The incoming Yesvantpur-Howrah Express then crashed into the overturned coaches that had been flipped onto the main line and also derailed, the report said.
Authorities revised the death toll down Sunday to at least 275 people and said about 400 remained hospitalized with injuries, a day after rescue efforts to find survivors were halted.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi commended citizens who “immersed themselves” in assisting with rescue operations as he visited the site of the disaster Saturday.
Modi said the government would do its utmost to help those who had suffered from the accident and strictly punish anyone found responsible.
The derailment has raised new questions about Modi’s effort to upgrade and modernize a British colonial-era railroad network that is still beset by deadly accidents. The government has spent billions in an effort to make India’s rail 100% electric by 2024, the same year he faces an election.
Previous train accidents have been blamed on human error, or the use of outdated signaling equipment.
In November 2016, more than 100 people were killed when 14 coaches of a passenger train rolled off the track in the country’s north.
India’s worst rail accident up till now happened in August 1995, when two trains collided near New Delhi, killing 358 people.
Modi has been invited to address a joint session of Congress during an official state visit to the United States later this year.
President Joe Biden said in a statement late Saturday that “Jill and I are heartbroken by the tragic news of the deadly train crash in India.” He added: “Our prayers go out to those who have lost loved ones and the many who suffered injuries in this terrible incident.”
Ravi Mishra reported from New Delhi, and Leila Sackur reported from London.