As giant excavators tried to untangle crushed trains on Saturday at the scene of India’s worst rail disaster in decades, a solemn scene was playing out at a small school a few hundred yards away.
In humid air filled with the odor of human flesh, relatives went through the harrowing exercise of identifying their loved ones from about 120 dead bodies lined up on the ground after the crash on Friday night.
Among those searching was Miyah Jan Mullah, who had come from neighboring West Bengal to look for his son, Musavir, who had been on his way to his tailoring job in Chennai. When Mr. Mullah finally found Musavir’s body, most of it was burned, but his face was largely intact.
“When I saw my son’s face, I thought he had just gone to sleep,” Mr. Mullah said. “But when I looked at his body, I raised my hands toward God and asked him what have I done that my flower turned into a charcoal?”
At least 288 people were killed and more than 700 others injured in what officials in a preliminary government report described as a “three-way accident” involving two passenger trains and an idled freight train in the eastern state of Odisha. Officials said they were investigating signal failure as a possible cause of the crash.
The toll, exceptionally large even in a nation with a long history of deadly crashes, has renewed longstanding questions about safety problems in a system that transports more than eight billion passengers a year.
It has also dented, even if temporarily, what is emerging as one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s signature appeals as he gears up for a third term in office next year — his vast effort to modernize India’s long dilapidated infrastructure.
Mr. Modi had been scheduled on Saturday to inaugurate the latest in a series of new high-speed trains, the rollout of each appearing timed at building momentum for his campaign. Instead, he arrived at the devastating scene of the wreckage in Odisha to assess the damage.
“The people we have lost, we will not be able to bring them back. But the government is with their families in their grief,” Mr. Modi said after visiting the site. “This is a very serious incident for the government. We have given directions for all lines of inquiry, and whoever is found responsible will be given the strongest punishment. They will not be spared.”
As Mr. Modi left the scene after reviewing the wreckage, a large police contingent struggled to hold back a crowd of thousands who had gathered nearby. Excavators removed what was left of the collided trains, and railway workers tried to clear the tracks so train service could restart.
Survivors of the crash said their train was packed with hundreds of migrant laborers, students and daily wage workers who were shoulder to shoulder in at least three general compartments — with most of them standing — when the trains collided.
“It was full of people,” said Sayel Ali, who was admitted to a hospital near the site of accident. “You could only see heads. When the accident happened, I couldn’t see anything. I don’t know how I reached the hospital.”
Some initial details about the cause of the disaster were beginning to emerge, though much remained unclear.
According to an initial government report seen by The New York Times, a high-speed passenger train traveling from Kolkata, the Coromandel Express, collided with a freight train that had been idled at a small-town station, Bahanaga Bazar, around 7 p.m. local time. The passenger train was “going at full speed across the station as it was not supposed to stop” there, the report said.
After smashing into the freight train, the passenger train, with 1,257 passengers, derailed. Twenty-one of its coaches bounced off the track, with three of them sprawled onto another track.
“Simultaneously,” according to the report, a passenger train from Bengaluru to Kolkata, the Yesvantpur-Howrah Express, with 1,039 passengers, was headed in the opposite direction — on the track that the three dislocated coaches lay. This second collision knocked the last two coaches of the third train off its tracks.
Officials did not yet have any explanation of why the freight train was stopped, nor why the Coromandel Express was not alerted to its presence on the tracks, which triggered the entire disaster.
Aditya Kumar Chaudhary, the chief public relations officer for Southern Eastern Railways, confirmed reports that a “preliminary inquiry” had indicated the cause was likely due to a signal failure. But Mr. Chaudhary said those initial suggestions needed to be checked in a thorough investigation.
“The train was to go for the main line, but signal pointer was given for the loop line. That is what the supervisors have pointed out,” Mr. Chaudhary said. “Lots of many ifs and buts are there. It has to be checked and cross checked.”
“It was a devastating scene because the train was at high speed, full speed,” said Sudhanshu Sarangi, the chief of Odisha’s fire service, after he arrived at the crash site. “The goods train was stationary; the other two trains were running.”
Shashwat Gupta, 25, an information technology worker who had boarded one of the trains in Kolkata along with his sister and her children to visit his parents in the city of Cuttack, in Odisha, said their coach had flipped “to a 90-degree angle” after a sudden jerk.
“I could locate the emergency window, and we managed to get out of the train,” he said. “In the other coaches, I could hear shouting, crying. There was a lot of blood.”
The government in Odisha, which is home to about 45 million people, declared a day of mourning. Dozens of trains were canceled. Teams from India’s Army, Air Force and National Disaster Response Force were mobilized to help. And people near the crash site lined up to donate blood.
Ashwini Vaishnaw, the minister of railways, told reporters on Saturday that he had ordered an investigation to determine the cause of the crash.
“Our immediate focus is on rescue and relief,” he said from the site of the disaster. “We will know more after the inquiry.”
The disaster on Friday was the deadliest since a crash in 1995 in which more than 350 people were killed when two trains collided 125 miles from Delhi.
India’s railway system, one of the largest in the world, was first developed in the 19th century by the British colonial authorities. Today, more than 40,000 miles of track — enough to wrap around the Earth about one and a half times — spread like capillaries over a nation about twice the size of Alaska that stretches from the Himalayas to tropical rainforests.
Passenger safety has come under scrutiny in India in recent years.
In 2012, a committee appointed to review the safety of the rail network cited “a grim picture of inadequate performance largely due to poor infrastructure and resources.” It recommended a host of urgent measures, including upgrading tracks, repairing bridges, eliminating road-level crossings and replacing old train cars with ones that better protect passengers in case of an accident.
In 2016, 14 train cars derailed in India’s northeast in the middle of the night, killing more than 140 sleeping passengers and injuring 200 others. Officials at the time said a “fracture” in the tracks might have been responsible. In 2017, a late-night derailment in southern India killed at least 36 passengers and injured 40 others.
The Modi administration has spent tens of billions of dollars to renovate and modernize old trains and tracks, accelerating the work of improving train safety. By 2020, for two years in a row, India had recorded no passenger deaths in serious train accidents. It was a first, and Mr. Modi’s government hailed it as an achievement. Until 2017, more than 100 passengers were killed every year.
Partha Mukhopadhyay, a senior fellow at the Center for Policy Research, who previously served on the Indian government’s railway restructuring committee, said “a fair amount of capital investment” had in fact reduced the frequency of accidents in recent years.
“Twenty or 30 years ago, India had built many things but didn’t have the resources to keep them all going,” he said. “But now, even if the economy isn’t growing terribly well, these kinds of expenditures are not falling short.”
Sameer Yasir reported from Balasore, India, and Mujib Mashal and Hari Kumar from New Delhi. Reporting was contributed by Alex Travelli, Karan Deep Singh and Suhasini Raj in New Delhi, Mike Ives in Seoul and Dan Bilefsky in Toronto.