Railway safety: Does India have a real solution?

Anusha Ravi wonders what the government is doing to prevent train accidents.

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Every time lives are lost in a train accident, investigations are ordered, compensation announced and dozens in authority condole the deaths and pray for the families. Does any of this ultimately contribute towards making the Indian Railway tracks any safer? Hundreds of lives have been lost to train accidents annually with no real solution to avert such tragedies emerging.

Police and railway officials on the accident spot after a train derailed at Kurseong, West bengal in this photograph taken on January 11, 2017.

Thirty-nine persons were killed after seven coaches of the Hirakhand Express derailed on January 21. The Kanpur train tragedy November 2016 left 149 people dead making it one of the worse train accidents in the history of Indian Railways. Pakistan's Inter-Service Intelligence is suspected of having a role to play in the derailment. But isn't the safety of tracks the responsibility of the ministry as well as the railway police force?

Safety action plans, periodic safety audits, disaster management modules, the introduction of technologies to avoid human intervention etc are some measures railways claims to have taken to ensure the safety of passengers but with repeated incidents on derailments, this is clearly not enough.

Scout locomotives, a solution?

Sabotage seems to be the easiest conclusion to arrive at. A popular but far-fetched proposal to make tracks safe is the usage of The Scout Locomotive to lead all fast trains. The small unmanned locomotives equipped with systems to detect damage in tracks and send across signals of the same are allowed to run at least a kilometre ahead of the train. In the case of damage in tracks, the locomotive will derail sending the main train information of the danger ahead.

Usage of scout locomotives can save hundreds of lives, but the sheer size of the Indian Railway network makes this far-fetched. The Indian Railway is a massive network with 10,822 locomotives with 67,308 Passenger coaches that cover over 66,030 Kms across the country, according to the ministry report dated March 31, 2015. The numbers will only increase with time.

Safety measures so far

The Indian Railways is still in the process of bettering Anti-Collision Device developed by the Konkan Railway Corporation limited. It is under trial. Pilot projects on Train Protection warning system to prevent overspeeding has been around since 2008 only for 50 routes of southern railways. Service trial for another 200 is still underway. The proposed condition based monitoring mechanism is yet to be implemented. The project will have two systems:

An onboard system that will detect glitches in roller bearings, coach suspension etc. While the second system will detect wheel defects, hanging parts, broken springs, and more.

In its own report 2014-15, the Indian Railways claims to have carried out at least 80 safety audits at zonal levels. In 2016 alone, two notices for a safety drive on derailment were issued to officers. Ambush checks, inspections, maintenance of tracks, prevention of railway fractures and wild fractures, zero missing fittings at approach locations to bridges, stations, curves and high banks were key points of the notice.

Despite all the notices and perhaps very little action, the preliminary investigations into the Kuneru accident show that a portion of the track had broken off. While some officials feel that the track may have been cut off, other say that there were cracks on it and the tracks had weakened as a result of which it had broken off.

While a blame game is an easy way out for those in authority, the investigation reports are kept confidential and are never made accessible to the public. There is no reason why the summary of the findings of major accidents and the follow-up action taken cannot be put in the public domain. The US department of transportation regularly uploads its reports on train accidents on its website.

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