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Indian Railways

If the India Air Force’s Mig23 fighter planes are called ‘flying coffins’ (because they keep on crashing and killing pilots), rx what should the trains of the Indian Railways – which keep crashing with alarming regularity killing hundreds of passengers – be called?

India’s railway network operates 9,000 passenger trains and carries some 18 million passengers every day. Train accidents in India have killed over 1,200 people over the past five years, railway officials say. But that figure does not count the people killed on the tracks. The biggest reason for people dying on railway tracks is trespassing.

The recent accident near Nagpur where the Netravati Express derailed killing 3 passengers was only the latest, and like with most other rail accidents, could have been prevented if timely repairs had been done to the tracks. The last major accident was in Bihar on August 19 when at least 35 people died when the Rajya Rani Express ran over people at the Dhamara station near Saharsa.

Last month, eight people were run over by the Rayagada passenger near Gotlam Vizayanagaram, in Andhra Pradesh. The tragedy occurred after passengers of the Bokaro Express (Alleppy to Dhanbad), proceeding to Bokaro Steel city, pulled the chain at the railway yard at Gotlam station near Vizianagaram town when they heard a rumour that a compartment of the train was on fire. They then alighted the train and jumped onto the tracks at around 6.50 pm. It was dark and the passengers didn’t see the Rayagada-Vijaywada passenger train coming from the opposite direction on the adjacent rack. The Raigarh-Vijaywada train ran over them, killing eight people. On November 13, a herd of 40 elephants was struck by a passenger train in Chapramari Wildlife Sanctuary.

A high-level safety review committee appointed by railways in 2012 had found that almost 15,000 people were killed every year while crossing rail tracks, and had described it as an annual “massacre” due to poor safety standards. Around 6,000 deaths were reported on the Mumbai suburban system alone. In a harsh comment, the panel headed by Anil Kakodkar observed, “Reluctance of railways to own these casualties, which do not fall under the purview of train accidents but are nevertheless accidents on account of trains can by no means be ignored. No civilized society can accept such massacre on their railway system.”

Passengers at most stations are forced to trespass because of inadequate pedestrian over-bridges, escalators and narrow platforms. The trespass takes place mainly on account of lack of barricading and fencing. The failure of railways to eliminate level crossings is another major cause of deaths on tracks. Around 194 people were killed at unmanned level crossings in the last three years. The unmanned crossings are responsible for the maximum number of train accidents, around 40%, as the task of building road over-bridges (ROBs) and road under-bridges (RUBs) has remained incomplete.

Recently the Railway Ministry announced that it would eliminate 10,797 level crossings during the 12th five year plan (2012-17) and not add any new level crossing in future. The railways have 31,254 level crossings, around 40% of which are unmanned.

In February this year, a parliamentary panel headed by Sitaram Yechury recommended complete autonomy to the Commission for Railway Safety (CRS) for its effective functioning as an agency investigating rail accidents. The panel described the prevailing scenario for investigating rail accidents by CRS as “disappointing”, and its mandate as “greatly restricted”. Yechury said more than 90% of the railway accidents have been assigned to human error and the persons responsible for these are often dead. There is seldom a complete investigation to find the reason. “The commission has not been allowed to conduct investigations independently,” he said.

According to the railways, “it is a known fact that more than 50% of collisions on railways were caused by lapses of loco pilots who are one of the most stressful lot, necessitating technical aid to them for preventing collisions.”

Sitaram Yechury also said the CRS should be legally empowered to conduct inspections annually, which is not the practice now. Prior to 1953, CRS had the power of inspection but it was taken away by the railways by an executive order that year. Yechury also expressed concern over the delay in using anti-collision devices to reduce accidents. He added that whenever a question relating to the use of technology is asked, railway officials come with a “standard reply” of “still being tested”.

The Anti-Collision Device (ACD), developed by the Konkan Railway Corporation way back in 2003 after a series of train collisions which killed hundreds, is still not widely used. The ACD is a self-acting microprocessor-based data communication device. When installed on locomotives (along with an auto-braking unit – ABU), guard vans, stations and level-crossing gates (both manned and unmanned), the network of ACD systems prevents high-speed collisions in mid-sections, station areas and at level-crossing gates.

The ACD uses both radio frequency and Global Positioning System (GPS) through satellites, whereby a train is automatically brought to a halt if the track ahead is not clear. The train starts braking 3 kms ahead of a blockade. Even though there have been many major accidents since then, the railways are yet to install ACDs in all trains.

One reason for the sad state of the Indian railways, say observers, is that the Railway Ministry, considered one of the most lucrative, is always given to a powerful politician – who usually knows nothing about the railways. The politician then fills the railways with people seeking employment from his constituency, state or political party. Asks Goa-based British parliamentarian Lord Meghnad Desai, “Does the Railway Ministry have to be sacrificed to narrow regional interests?  Why has India not got a decent high-speed rail service but just plenty of workshops and factories in the constituencies of railway ministers and Congress grandees? What would it take to get a safe, decent, comfortable railway system which passengers can ride without fear of accidents and injuries?”

Good questions.