The Odisha triple train crash on Friday evening is the first such pile-up on Indian tracks and the second worst rail accident in terms of casualty figures in over two decades – 288 and counting with over 800 injured. But after 119 fatal accidents since the first – collision of Avadh Ashram Express and Brahmaputra Mail at Gaisal in West Bengal’s North Dinajpur district in 1999 that claimed 285 lives – the status of a high-level safety report submitted over a decade ago is “still in progress”.
After the Gaisal incident, India has witnessed 119 major train accidents that have killed and injured hundreds, including incidents of communal and terrorist attacks, blasts and arson on trains. But over 100 cases were caused by derailment and collision, including at least three involving the Coromandel Express.
The cause of the latest accident is yet to be ascertained as statements of senior railway officials, Odisha’s chief secretary Pradip Jena and officials at the spot do not match. Even as railway experts and officers claim that the accident could have been caused by a derailment or a side collision, another section is not ruling out chances of sabotage.
28 parliamentary standing committee reports on railways since 1993
Since 1993 (10th Lok Sabha) to date, the parliament’s standing committee has presented 28 reports on the railways with an elaborate report by a “high-level safety review committee” under Dr Anil Kakodkar, which was presented to the ministry of railways in February 2012. In this report, accessed by News18, published 11 years ago and in the last standing committee report on the railways, it was highlighted that a system or an efficient mechanism to detect on-course collisions need to be implemented. There are names for such systems with different nomenclatures – anti-collision device system to collision avoidance system to Kavach.
“Maintaining a balance with newly added trains, the length of railway tracks also need to go up. It has to be proportionate. The number of trains being added is faster than the addition of new tracks. When we submitted the report, we had a discussion with all stakeholders. After submission, there was some discussion but the trail went cold,” Dr Kakodkar, former chair of Atomic Energy Commission who led the high-level committee, told News18.
He added: “A lot of modernisation has happened in terms of signalling and rolling stock. As we increase the speed of trains, we must be more meticulous about safety features in terms of technology and preparation of human resources. This is something that needs attention. Some old arrangements are not up to the mark. There is a low probability of anti-collision devices being installed in many high-speed trains. Problem areas need to be recognised, but our system is lax. It is understandable that implementing in one of the largest networks is a challenge, but we need to catch up sooner than later.”
The then rail minister Dinesh Trivedi had formed the high-level safety committee in 2011 following some train crashes that claimed lives. “In 2010, Jnaneswari Express rammed into a goods train and derailed. The accident killed around 150 people and injured hundreds. Mamata Banerjee was rail minister then and the investigation revealed that it was sabotage. So, the possibility of sabotage cannot be ruled out here as we have never seen or heard about such a crash and a pile-up of three trains in a split second,” Trivedi told News18.
What does the 2022-23 standing committee report say?
The latest standing committee report from 2022-23, also accessed by News18, noted that the Indian Railways had developed an indigenous automatic train protection and warning (ATP) system for increased train safety. Called Kavach, it was under commissioning over 1,200 km of the South Central Railway as well as Delhi-Mumbai and Delhi-Howrah lines by March 2024.
“…The committee lauded this initiative of the railways and hoped that it would go a long way in bringing down the rate of accidents. The committee, therefore, desires that in coming years, the allocation on safety should be enhanced so that the ‘KAVACH’ be implemented in entire areas/sections over Indian Railways,” the report stated.
The ministry, in its response to the recommendation, said Kavach was the realisation of the “spirit of vision of Atmanirbhar Bharat” and “adopted as Indian Railways’ national automatic train protection (ATP)”. It further said in addition to a trial section of 250 km, at present, Kavach was under implementation on 1,200 km of South Central Railway (Bidar-Parli Vaijnath-Parbhani and Manmad-Parbhani-Nanded-Secunderabad-Gadwal-Dhone-Guntakal sections).
As on March 31, 2022, Kavach has covered 1,098 km of network route in South Central Railway and works to bring 34,000 km on high density network (HDN)/highly utilised network (HUN) routes have been approved, the ministry said. At present, Kavach rollout is planned on New Delhi-Mumbai and New Delhi-Howrah routes, which are targeted for completion by March 2024, it added.
“…Further, rollout will be planned based on experience gained. Indian Railways has made provision of Rs 272.30 crore in 2022-23 for the implementation of Kavach in comparison to Rs 133 crore in FY 2021-22,” the ministry said in its response.
‘Kavach rollout slow’
News18 spoke to senior serving and retired railway officials regarding Kavach. “Rollout of KAVACH is very slow, and we are yet to cover even a miniscule percentage under existing trains. The new trains, including Vande Bharat, have the system built in though,” said a senior railway official.
A senior railway spokesperson said the Coromandel Express did not have the collision device installed in it. The high-level safety report said in its present form, the anti-collision device (ACD) was not a safety system and not yet fully engineered for ATP equivalence in standalone form.
“…But off-the-track loco position sensing through GPS as used in ACD, is a diverse technique and, therefore, is a promising concept… Automatic train protection systems are necessary to prevent collisions due to drivers passing signals at danger (SPAD),” the report stated.
Another report on anti-collision device, accessed by News18, stated: “In 1999, after the Gaisal incident, based on ‘radio communication’, ‘microprocessors’ and ‘global positioning system (GPS)’ technology, a team of Konkan Railway in 90 days produced a prototype of anti-collision device (ACD) which, when mounted on two approaching trains, would enable them to assess accurately each other’s course and initiate an ‘automatic’ braking action, in case they were perceived to be at collision risk. For this system to work, ACD needs to be installed in all trains. Over the years, there have been so many new tech additions to the system.”
Another senior railway official said, “Over the past two decades, India witnessed scores of rail accidents killing hundreds; however, only in two cases – Jnaneswari (Maoist attack) and Pukhrayan train derailment, the casualty figures crossed 150.”