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The latest on the train collision in India that killed more than 280 people

ERIC DEGGANS, HOST:

Authorities in eastern India are still investigating the cause of a major train crash there yesterday. The incident involved two passenger trains traveling in opposite directions. More than 280 people were killed, and hundreds more were injured or trapped in the wreckage. Prime Minister Narendra Modi issued a statement saying he was distressed by the tragedy, promising support for survivors. Joining us now to tell us more is Joe Wallen. He's a journalist in Delhi who covers South Asia. Joe, welcome to the show.

JOE WALLEN: Hi. Good evening, Eric. It's a pleasure to speak to you, and I only wish it could be on more positive terms.

DEGGANS: Of course. So what do we know at this point about what exactly happened?

WALLEN: So the investigation is currently underway into what exactly happened. It's believed at this stage that a busy passenger train took the wrong line as it came through a station and ended up hitting a cargo train. It's unclear exactly why this happened, but it's believed that it could have been given the wrong signal. Now, when the two trains collided, debris and possibly some of the carriages landed on a separate line and collided with a third train, another busy passenger train that was heading in the opposite direction.

DEGGANS: So this death toll seems so high. Do we know if these trains were overcapacity?

WALLEN: So this, I think, is one of the key points that really needs looking into. Now, India's railway system or railway network doesn't match the demand that is out there. What we saw from the visuals that have come out were very packed carriages, particularly in the sleeper and general class, which are the cheapest tickets on offer, you know, allegations that a lot of those travelling didn't have tickets and just crowded onto the train.

DEGGANS: India has one of the largest rail networks in the world, and it's also a country where hundreds of train accidents are reported each year. Are there concerns about the overall safety of the system?

WALLEN: Absolutely. There are concerns that while India is trying to rapidly upgrade its infrastructure to meet the demands of its population, that safety regulation is not upgraded at the same rates. There aren't enough fundamentally trained professionals to work in the system, and those that are in place say they're having to work for 14, 16 hours a day to try and cover shifts, which can lead to human error.

DEGGANS: The natural question, of course, when an accident this terrible happens - you wonder if there's any implications for the government and particularly for Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

WALLEN: Yes. There's been a lot of finger-pointing. Mr. Modi, in his usual triumphant fashion, announced the release of the Kavach system in 2019, which is an Indian-made train collision avoidance system. And the government promised that this would be rolled out across the country. And essentially, how it should work would be that if a train goes through a signal and is approaching another train, the engine would automatically close off to avoid a collision. But since 2019, it's only been rolled out to around 2% of the railway network. So quite a lot of opposition politicians have been pointing that fact out.

DEGGANS: That was journalist Joe Wallen in Delhi. Joe, thanks so much for sharing your reporting.

WALLEN: Thanks, Eric. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.