India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, had been scheduled soon to inaugurate the latest in a series of new high-speed trains highlighting his government’s expanded infrastructure investment. Instead, he arrived on Saturday at the devastating scene of the country’s deadliest rail disaster in decades.
At least 261 people were killed and about 900 others injured on Friday night in what officials in a preliminary government report described as a “three-way accident” involving two passenger trains and one freight train in the eastern state of Odisha.
The toll, exceptionally large even in a nation with a long history of deadly crashes, renewed longstanding questions about safety problems in a system that transports more than eight billion passengers a year.
The precise cause of the disaster remained unclear on Saturday. At least 17 cars of the two passenger trains had derailed, some so twisted in the subsequent collision that teams of rescue workers with dogs and cutting equipment were still laboring to recover the bodies. Together, the two passenger trains had been carrying at least 2,200 people, according to railway officials.
“It was a devastating scene, because the train was at high speed, full speed,” said Sudhanshu Sarangi, the chief of Odisha’s fire service, who had arrived at the scene. “The goods train was stationary; the other two trains were running.”
Mr. Modi, who led a high-level review meeting before arriving in Odisha to assess the damage, promised “all possible assistance” for the victims’ families.
“In this hour of grief, my thoughts are with the bereaved families,” Mr. Modi wrote on Twitter. “May the injured recover soon.”
The government in the state, which is home to about 45 million people, declared a day of mourning. Dozens of trains were canceled. Teams from the Army, Air Force and National Disaster Response Force were mobilized to help. And people near the crash site were lining up to donate blood.
The crash occurred about 7 p.m. local time on Friday when several cars of one train derailed and collided with a second train in Balasore District, the train’s operator, South Eastern Railway, said in a statement. Local officials said the tangle had ultimately involved a third train that was carrying freight.
Shashwat Gupta, a 25-year-old 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.”
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.”
Friday’s crash was the nation’s deadliest since two trains collided head-on in West Bengal in 1999, killing about 285 people.
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.
The Modi administration has since spent tens of billions of dollars to renovate and modernize old trains and tracks, resulting in a major improvement in train safety in recent years.
The prime minister had been scheduled on Saturday to inaugurate, by video conference, India’s 19th Vande Bharat Express train, a new electric model manufactured domestically, featuring technology that helps reduce the risk of collisions.
Mr. Modi’s office said on Friday that the train, which will run between the western city of Mumbai and the southern state of Goa, would “provide the people of the region the means to travel with speed and comfort.”
But in a system weakened by years of neglect, deadly problems persist.
Suhasini Raj contributed reporting.