The unfortunate and tragic train accident in Odisha’s Balasore district on Friday evening has once again underscored the crucial issue of rail safety. The exact cause of the accident will be determined upon the completion of the investigation, but preliminary findings indicate that one train collided with the derailed bogies of another, leading to a crash involving multiple coaches.
Over the past few years, the Indian Railways has experienced an overall downward trend in consequential rail accidents.
According to government data from 2010-11, the Indian Railways network recorded a total of 139 “consequential” train accidents, resulting in 235 passenger fatalities. The number of such mishaps decreased to 59 in 2018-19, but still led to the deaths of 16 passengers.
In 2019-20 and 2020-21, there were zero passenger fatalities recorded, despite 54 and 21 accidents, respectively. However, in 2021-22, a total of 35 ‘consequential’ train accidents occurred, resulting in the unfortunate loss of nine lives. These figures exclude the data from the Konkan Railway.
The ‘consequential’ accidents, as defined by the Railways, are those that have “serious repercussions in terms of loss of human life, injury, or damage to railway property…”.
Moreover, other critical safety indices indicated a positive trend, as per the data available.
Train Accidents Per Million Train Kilometres, another crucial safety indicator, decreased from 0.28 in 2005 to 0.5 in 2019-20 and further went down to 0.3 in 2020-21.
Another marker of passenger safety, the Casualties Per Million Passengers Carried, too, has shown a declining trend from 0.07 in 2016-17 to 0.03 in 2020-21.
These positive results were achieved as an outcome of various challenging measures undertaken by the Railways to enhance the safety of the fourth-largest railway network in the world and largest in Asia, considering its size.
Saving more human lives incrementally is one of the biggest achievements for the Indian Railways, which runs more than 13,452 passenger trains and 9,141 goods trains daily, from 7,318 stations across India.
There are many reasons for accidents on Indian Railways network coming down. The railway track, which is the most critical safety component, is undergoing progressive modernisation. Old tracks with fish-plated joints are being replaced by long-welded rails, and sleepers are being upgraded from wooden and steel to PSC (Normal/Wider Base) sleepers. Rail grinding machines, commonly used worldwide to extend the lifespan of rails, have also been introduced.
Flaws and lacunae in signalling are being fixed with modern signalling systems, which comprise Panel Interlocking, Route Relay Interlocking, and Electronic Interlocking, along with Multi-Aspect Color Light Signals for clear visibility in all weather conditions. Computer-based Centralized Traffic Control systems have been established to manage rail traffic at multiple stations in real-time.
The introduction of the Automatic Train Protection System, linked with satellites, is being implemented on a train-by-train basis. This system ensures that even if the locomotive pilot misses a signal, there will be no consequential accidents, in addition to addressing the issue of overspeeding. India’s homemade system, Kavach, designed to prevent collisions between two trains, is currently being rolled out.
In addition, a large-scale introduction of LHB coaches is being carried out to replace the old ICF ones. The technologically superior LHB coaches are equipped with features such as an anti-climbing arrangement and air suspension (secondary) with a failure indication system.
Furthermore, in the Railway Budget 2016-17, the government announced the ‘Mission Zero Accident’ with the establishment of the ‘Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh’. This initiative aimed to replace, renew, and upgrade critical safety assets, with an allocation of Rs 1 lakh crore over a duration of five years.
However, the Coromandel Express collision with a goods train and the derailment of the last four coaches of Yesvantpur-Howrah train as a result, has raised further questions about the efficacy of the current safety arrangements.
The issue of derailment is also concerning because despite concerted efforts it remains the major reason behind train accidents.
From 2016-17 to 2021-22, as many as 344 ‘consequential’ accidents occurred on the network of the Indian Railways and 258 of these – or 75% of all accidents – have happened because of derailments.
According to ‘A Technical Guide On Derailment’ published by the Indian Railways in 1998, the “derailments present a burning problem to Railways”.
“Unless cause is obvious e.g. cattle run over, sudden falling of boulders, trees etc. on the track, sinking of track, breach or wash-away etc., it is necessary to thoroughly investigate the role of track and vehicle in causing the derailment,” it mentions.
Further, basing its assessment on available statistics, the guide prepared by the Centre for Advanced Maintenance Technology, Gwalior reads: “Statistics about derailments reveal that the most prominent causes are: failure of railway staff in properly examining railway equipment; inadequate maintenance of locomotives, rolling stock, track, signals etc.; and other operational irregularities.”
In many cases, derailment has resulted from rail fractures or cracks in the rail tracks, mostly due to extreme weather conditions. While the track breaks due to linear expansion in summer, the same happens in winter due to contraction.
However, at this juncture, when the complete picture is still unclear, making a speculative guess would not be a prudent call.
This unfortunate accident also comes at a time when the Indian Railways is steadily rolling out semi-high-speed Vande Bharat Express trains in a big way.
Accidents not only damage the reputation of the Indian Railways, but also raise concerns about the effectiveness of its operational procedures.
As a cost-effective and affordable mode of transportation for millions of Indians, it has consistently played a crucial role in India’s social and economic development. Its freight services serve as the backbone of the Indian economy. India cannot afford to have lax safety protocols for its national rail carrier.