Through the Wreckage (of Odisha train mishap) – Is Rail Safety a Myth in India?

It is not rare that we get to know about train accidents in India – in fact, a good sweep through the internet will give you hundreds of instances in the last decade or so. So is rail safety an actual myth in India? 

The Accident

A tragic accident unfolded in the quiet town of Balasore (Odisha) on 2nd June 2023 with a triple collision involving two passenger trains – the Coromandel Shalimar Express and the Yesvantpur-Howrah Superfast – and a parked goods train.

The accident, being labeled as the fourth deadliest in a century and the most deadliest in around three decades, took only a few minutes to completely change the lives of those traveling on the trains and present at the accident site. According to sources, the collision has resulted in the death of at least 275 people and has injured close to a thousand. 

Seeking Answers

The nation is still in mourning and disbelief over the accident and the massive destruction to human life as a result of the triple train crash. Thankfully, the NDRF, ODRAF, and the fire services have been tirelessly on the location – a team of about 550 personnel engaged in extensive rescue and restoration operations, in the midst of the wreckage.

The Minister of Railways, Ashwini Vaishnaw, has ordered a high level probe into the cause of the deadly collision and has entrusted the Commissioner of Railway Safety (South East Circle), with the responsibility of conducting a detailed inquiry. 

While Vaishnaw was one the first representatives from the Government to visit the site for inspection of loss and damage to life and property, it is being said that the Prime Minister will also be visiting Odisha soon. 

How did it happen?

According to experts, a train can derail for a number of reasons – an ill-maintained track, a faulty coach, or an error in driving. A government railway safety report for 2019-20 found derailments were responsible for 70% of the railway accidents, up from 68% the previous year. The Former Railway Board Chairman, Vivek Sahai termed derailment as the ‘bug-bear’ of the Indian Railways.

Prima facie, it was revealed that the goods train was already parked adjacent to the mail railway line when the Coromandel Shalimar Express, running on the main line section, entered the Bahanagar Station around 6:55 pm. Instead of taking up main line, the Coromandel entered loop line (where the goods train was already parked), and collided with the goods train. Since the momentum of the 21 coach fully packed Coromandal was not supposed to halt at the Station, it was running at a little lower than the peak permissible speed, and climbed the rear of the goods train. In the process some of its coaches derailed and started infringing adjacent main line. Just a few minutes later, the Yesvantpur-Howrah Superfast entered the Station and hit the derailed coaches of the Coromandel.

Further details are expected to be revealed in the intricate investigation that has been ordered. However, Mr. Lalit Chandra Trivedi (Railway Safety Expert and Former General Manager – East Central Railway (Patna)) commented: “Apparently some shortcut with criminal negligence was adopted as a result of which the aspect of the UP main signal and the position of switch (point) governing up route were not in consonance (congruent). It is felt that there is no cure for wilful negligence.”

He also said that “apparently there was some maintenance work going on. There is a possibility that the detection system for capturing the position of point normal/reverse was interfered with. The true mechanism of wrong detection will come out in the enquiry.”

Learning our lessons yet? 

The extremely unfortunate accident has brought the attention of the country to rail safety – or rather the lack of it. 

Vaishnaw announced an ex-gratia compensation of INR 10 lakh to the kin of the deceased, and the former rail minister Pawan Kumar Bansal said the amount should be increased. On the other hand, Mamata Banerjee said that there has been a coordination gap in the Railways. This is exactly the kind of politics that should be refrained from at this point of time. 

Farce protection?

In fact, the real question is how did the trains collide despite being ‘reportedly’ fitted with Kavach – an Anti Collision Device (ACD) developed by the Ministry of Railways. 

Around this time last year, the Ministry of Railways unveiled Kavach as the indigenously created railway collision prevention technology, which automatically draws a train to stop when it senses an obstruction on the track. 

In the event that the ACD system detects a potential collision scenario, it triggers an alarm in the locomotive cab and activates the emergency braking system. This immediate action helps to prevent or mitigate the impact of a collision. The ACD also provides audio and visual alerts to the train crew, warning them about the potential danger ahead.

Kavach prevents collisions of trains on the same line. In this case, the lines of first collision as per signal aspect were different, but as per switch aspect were same. The 2nd collision was on account of infringement on DN line and were not with a self propelled vehicle, hence the collision not preventable by the system.

Trivedi enlists the conditions that must be fulfilled for Kavach to be effective at the outset:

1. 100% locomotives and other self propelled vehicles, must be fitted with Kavach equipment costing around INR 7 million each. 7000+ Railway stations and around 15,000 road crossings must be provided with Kavach equipment costing around INR 40 lakhs each, optic fibre all along the track etc.

2. There is a provision in the Kavach which flashes signals whenever the train on which it is fitted makes out of course halt. Kavach fitted on the other self propelled units receive this signal, which needs to be acknowledged by their pilots and should stop their train and restart only after talking to station/control .

In 2022-23, Indian Railways expected to deploy Kavach on 2,000 railway path systems, with 4,000-5,000 rail channel networks installed each year after that.

Hopefully, the ‘high level investigation’ should provide insights into the factors contributing to the collision, including whether the Kavach system was functioning correctly and the other factors contributed to the mishap.

With this accident, there will be a somewhat irrevocable damage to the trust and confidence of the ‘common man’ in the Indian Railways’ system, and surely, repairing that damage with be the officials’ top concern.

The ‘Balasore Train Collision’ will continue to serve, as do many others, as a wake-up call for a safer and more secure passenger and cargo movement on the Indian Railways. 

Source : ABP Live
Source : Mint
Source : DW
Source : NDTV
Source : Mint

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