Kanpur accident underlines Need for Investment in Railway Safety Infrastructure
Even as the country is still in the process of coming to terms with the horror of the derailment of the ill-fated Indore-Patna express train which has reportedly left over 120 dead and 180 injured in one of the worst train disasters in recent memory, it has emerged that the disaster was avoidable. Passengers of the S-1 coach had reportedly complained in Jhansi to both the guard and the traveling ticket examiner(TTE) about the unusually loud noise coming from the wheels. This complaint was voiced repeatedly by several passengers.
Surely, the TTE and the guard should have paid heed to this complaint about the sound. Railway officials on condition of anonymity stated that the sound was coming from the immovable wheels and could be the reason for the derailment of the S-1 and S-2 coaches.
Minister of state for Railways Manoj Sinha said rail fracture could be the cause of the accident. Rail fractures are `microcracks’ on rails that develop into ` major cracks’ following the passage of a train carrying a heavy load.
But this train accident has once again raised serious doubts about the safety of rail travel and the general health of the railway network.
The reasons for this are not far to seek. Ever since the NDA government came to power, they have been emphasizing the transformative role of the railways without giving due emphasis on routine safety drills so much so that the one-lakh vacancies in the safety category have not been filled up.
An internal note prepared by the railways have highlighted that the lack of focus on safety measures was reflected in the fact that the railways witnessed 80 passenger train accidents this year against 69 in the same period last year.
This is being increasingly reflected in poor track maintenance with the lack of proper fittings and ballast on railway lines adding to the woes of the daily passenger especially since the railway network carries 23 million people every day.
Piling of coaches one on top of the other could have been avoided if the railways had been using the modern Linke Hoffman Busch (LHB) coaches which are being used in premium trains such as the Rajdhanis and Shatabdis.
Although Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu had promised to implement the recommendation of the Anil Kakodkar committee on railway safety which had emphasised using LHB coaches as these have better safety features and can absorb both shock and derailment better, the Railway Board has been stalling the introduction of LHB coaches because the production levels of the ICF coaches continue at higher levels than those of the LHB coaches.
The railways safety records speak for themselves. In the last four years, 81,038 people lost their lives due to trespassing on railway tracks and 346 while crossing unmanned line crossings. Another 392 died in train accidents during the same period. Railway minister Manoj Sinha told Parliament recently that human errors on the part of railway staff have been one of the major causes of train accidents. He also disclosed that 204 accidents in the last three years were caused due to a failure of railway staff, 32 due to failure on part of those other than railway staff, 14 due to equipment failure, 10 due to sabotage, one due to a combination of factors, and 28 due to incidental factors.
The problem is that the railways have little money to invest in broad-gauging and other safety initiatives. It is, therefore, surprising that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe announced recently that India planned to buy bullet trains from Japan to connect Mumbai with Ahmedabad. Each train will cost around $ 15 billion dollars. This announcement came at a time when it is well known that the railways have no money to finance this expensive project. There is no doubt that the bullet trains in Japan have been found to be very safe and there is no history of their derailing or of any collision.
Railway officials state that the railways need to focus on maintenance and upgradations of infrastructure, especially on its aging tracks. Basic equipment including rubber pads and clasps which are required for safety jobs are in short supply and much more focus needs to be given on passenger safety equipment. Bullet trains can be bought after track upgradations has been completed.