Could the implementation of the ‘Kavach’ automatic train protection system have averted the three-train collision that killed more than 280 people in Balasore district of Odisha? The train accident, believed to be the deadliest in two decades, smashed 17 coaches in total and has once again led to questions on rail safety in the country.
While India does have the indigenously developed Kavach system designed by Research Designs and Standards Organisation (RDSO), its implementation has been so slow that not even 1,500 kilometres have been covered so far. In total, the broad-gauge network of the Indian Railways is spread over 65,300 kilometres.
News18 takes a look at what the Kavach system entails and whether it could have prevented or limited the Odisha train tragedy.
What is Kavach?
Kavach is an automatic train protection system indigenously developed by the Railway Ministry’s Research Designs and Standards Organisation in association with Indian vendors. In the spirit of the government’s AatmaNirbhar Bharat vision, Kavach has been adopted as the national automatic train protection system.
Kavach, which means ‘armour’, is designed to bring a train to a halt automatically when it notices another train on the same line within a prescribed distance. Kavach-installed trains are also meant to stop on their own when the digital system notices any manual error like “jumping” of the red signal or any other malfunction. A signal is passed at danger (SPAD) when a train passes a stop-signal when not allowed to do so.
Kavach also controls the speed of the train by an automatic application of brakes in case the loco pilot fails to do so. It helps the loco pilot in running the train during inclement weather such as dense fog.
The system is certified for Safety Integrity Level-4 by reputed international safety assessors (ISAs), which is the same as followed in similar safety systems in other countries. Further operational improvement of Kavach has been taken up, including change over from Ultra High Frequency (UHF) communication to LTE-4G communication.
According to officials, RFID tags are provided on the tracks and at station yard for each track and signals for track identification, location of trains and identification of train direction. The ‘On Board Display of Signal Aspect’ (OBDSA) is to help loco pilots check signals on board consoles even when the visibility is low.
Once the system is activated, all trains within a 5-km range will halt to provide protection for trains on adjacent tracks.
Before the system was put in place, loco pilots or assistant loco pilots used to crane their necks out of the window to look out for caution signs and signals.
The First Trial
The first trial of a train collision avoidance system (TCAS) in India was conducted in October 2012 in Hyderabad, with the Railways terming it a “path-breaking technology”.
During the test, two trains fitted with TCAS were allowed to run in the same direction on one track. Both trains screeched to a halt automatically at a distance of about 200m from each other, making the trial successful.
The TCAS was based on a combination of GPS and radio frequency-enabled technology. With the help of TCAS, automatic brakes can be applied without the intervention of the loco pilots once it detects another locomotive on the move or stationary on the same track, and avoids collision.
10 Years Later
In March 2022, a similar trial was conducted by Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw himself when he boarded one of the trains involved in the testing. The other train carried the Chairman of the Railway Board. This time the trial tested a head-on-collision scenario in which the two trains barrelled towards each other on the same track. The Kavach system licked in, halting the trains 380 metres apart.
According to Railway Ministry documents, the Kavach system has been implemented on 1,455 km of South Central Railway routes. In addition, Kavach works have been awarded on 3,000 km route of Delhi-Howrah and Delhi-Mumbai sections of Indian Railways and the work is in progress.
In its reply to the Standing Committee on Railways in March 2023, the ministry also said that Kavach is planned to be implemented on all High Density Network and Highly Utilized Network, approximately 35,000 km route of Indian Railways, for which the works have been sanctioned.
The ministry further said there are no accidents reported with Kavach-fitted trains plying in the Kavach-deployed section.
The Railway Board informed the Standing Committee that allocation for safety-related works has been proposed at Rs 32,500 crore against the revised estimate of Rs 26,458 crore in 2022-23. “The higher allocation for signal and telecom will expedite implementation of Kavach and automatic signalling,” it said.
Could Kavach Have Averted Odisha Mishap?
As per initial reports and information from the Railways, a number of coaches of the Chennai-bound Coromandel Express derailed in Odisha’s Balasore district after a head-on collision with a goods train. A ministry official told News18 that the collision could have been averted if the Kavach system had been installed.
“This route was not covered under Kavach. It is a very tragic accident,” the official said. Asked if Kavach could have averted the accident, the official said: “Yes”.
According to older ministry documents, installation of TCAS needs further installation of some electronic devices on the trains, in the stations and along the tracks.