Thursday, March 23rd, 2023 17:16:59

Why No Lessons Are Learnt From Repeated Rail Accidents?

Updated: December 29, 2016 4:18 pm

The  avoidable deaths of more than 150 people and injury of more than 200 people in one of the most deadliest rail accidents in recent times was Indore-Patna Train mishap near Kanpur on November 20, 2016! S1 and S2 had telescoped into each other and most of the casualties were feared to have been in these two compartments. S3 and S4 coaches also suffered severe damage.

Why inspite of repeated rail accidents no lessons are learnt? Why again and again rail accidents occur mostly due to the same causes? Why rail tracks are not repaired in time? Why many posts in railways are not filled on a regular basis? Why after every train accident we see that high level Committee are appointed which gives many recommendations but very few are implemented and after some time another rail accident and then again the same sequence of events play out again of Committee being appointed only to be never implemented or very few are implemented?

On early Sunday morning of November 20, 2016 at 3.03 am, the driver of the Indore-Patna Express witnessed “the overhead equipment shaking” and “felt a jerk”  – both out of the ordinary occurrences – and applied emergency brakes, show the official Railways records of worst train accident in recent years. Fourteen coaches of the Indore- Rajendranagar-Patna Express had derailed at Pukhrayan in Kanpur Dehat district of Uttar Pradesh. Sources in the Railway ministry said the Commissioner of Railway Safety, Eastern, PK Acharya who is probing the accident will look into the possibility of a fracture in the tracks as a possible cause of the accident, which led to the coaches to not only go off the track but also in such a way that several of them piled up against each other causing maximum casualty.

Minister of State for Railways – Manoj Sinha, who visited the accident spot, too told journalists and media that a fracture in the rails is suspected to have caused the accident. He said: “Action will be taken against those responsible.” Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu too expressed his fuming anger and said that those responsible will not be spared under any circumstances. It is most tragic and an unbeatable irony that every time we see a rail accident happening we hear a lot of talk that it will not be repeated again but after some time we again hear of another railway accident. This has to stop now!

In hindsight, in the aftermath of a tragedy of such massive proportions, several theories have been doing the rounds about what led to it. Let us discuss here some of them. They are as follows: –

Rail Fracture : The most popular theory about the derailment is that it was due to rail fracture and this has been told by sources in the Railways to the media who have videographed the entire Kanpur-Jhansi track to ascertain the cause. While the exact cause of the accident will be known after the enquiry report, prima facie evidence indicates rail fracture. The engine of the train did not derail whereas the coaches behind it went off rails thus giving credence to the crack theory. According to reports in the media, fractures on tracks are caused due to poor maintenance and lack of proper infrastructure. Such a big mishap cannot be the result of a single crack but missing fittings and ballast on tracks which leads to multiple fractures which, in turn, cause derailment.

Outdated Coaches : It must be added here that outdated coaches on this ill-fated train is also being held responsible for the huge mishap. Had there been stainless steel Linke Hoffman Busch (LHB) coaches, the damage could have been comparatively far much lesser as these coaches have more in-built safety features, which can absorb shock and impact of derailment more effectively due to which they do not topple. But what we saw was that the train had Integral Coach Factory coaches which are notorious for piling up in case of accidents. Let me also add here that a report was published in The Times of India that, “The death toll in Sunday’s incident could have been much lower had the railways paid attention to the recommendations of the Anil Kakodkar Committee on railway safety which suggested complete switching over to Linke Holfmann Bush (LHB) coaches from Integral Coach Factory (ICF) designed coaches”. The panel had said in its 2012 report that, “After carefully analysing the casualties of passengers in train collisions and derailments for the past 10 years, the Committee is of the view that ICF design of passenger coaches are no more safe at the present operational speeds of 100-120 kmph with trailing loads of 20-24 coaches. It is most regrettable that lack of funds and government’s failed attempts to allocate them was the reason why the LHB coaches had not replaced the obsolete ICF coaches.

Coaches Were Overloaded : It must be noted that according to official railway statements, close to 1,200 people were aboard the Indore-Rajendranagar Patna Express. However, other railway sources revealed to media that the actual number of passengers was much higher. Several hundreds of passengers were travelling without ticket or with a general one. The number of such people could have been around 500 which is almost half the capacity of the train.

Corroded Tracks: May I add here that old, corroded rails, which were in need of replacement, could have also been a major reason for the train tragedy. The Commissioner of Railway Safety (Eastern Circle) PK Acharya also endorsed this and said that an almost 10-km stretch of the track was badly corroded. While only 232 metres of track was damaged in the derailment, the fact that a stretch of nearby 10 km is being fitted with new rails clearly indicates that the tracks required replacement and the damage had escaped routine inspections.

Sabotage: BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi called the train tragedy an attempt to malign the government. He called it a conspiracy to defame Centre. This theory was endorsed by Sakshi Maharaj who was BJP’s MP from Unnao. While responding to it, Home Minister Rajnath Singh said that all potential causes which includes the conspiracy theory would be probed in detail.

Truth must come out. Those responsible for it must be punished severely. But most importantly, most concrete steps must be initiated to ensure that such serious train accident never takes place again in the future. No stone should be left unturned in this direction. This is the worst train accident in the country after the May 2010 rail disaster in West Bengal involving Gyaneshwari Express in which around 170 people were killed.

Why in India is life considered so cheap? Why no adequate safety measures are initiated well in time so that no major rail accidents take place? Why rail accidents keep happening time and again? Why adequate money is not spent on safety measures? Why rail tracks are not repaired in time? Why safety of people travelling in railways is taken so lightly? Why Centre does not allocate enough funds to make sure that proper maintenance of rail tracks, rail coaches etc is done most meticulously and superbly? There are a volley of many such unanswered questions which Government also refuses to address on a war footing and we just see unending deliberations and precious little is done on the ground!

It will be a no-brainer to ask: Why is Railway Ministry sitting on the recommendations made by the Kakodkar panel reports? The Kakodkar Committee had submitted its report to the then Railway Minister in March 2012 but there was no follow-up action.  Thereafter the report was presented to Suresh Prabhu who is now Railway Minister. It made 106 recommendations covering various aspects viz general safety matters, organizational structure, empowerment at working level and safety related works and issues.

To put things in perspective, it also advised filling up of vacancies in critical safety categories and manpower planning issues, plugging the shortage of critical safety spares, external interferences – removal of encroachment and possibility of sabotage, upgradation of signaling, telecommunication and train protection system, upgradation of rolling stock, track bridges, elimination of level crossings, human resource development with emphasis on education and training. I feel that apart from these, repairing work of old tracks and railway bridges must be completed in time. It submitted its report in July 2016 and it was claimed by the Railway Ministry that it had accepted fully 68 of the 106 recommendations made, 19 partially accepted and 19 not accepted.

Be it noted, of the total of 131 train accidents that occurred in Indian Railways during 2011-12, 115 (87.78 percent) were due to human failure. This is what needs to be rectified on a war footing. Attention in equal measure also needs to be poured on other causes which results in train accidents all across the country. As many as 52 (36.69 percent) took place due to the failure of railway staff; 63 (48.09 percent) due to the failure of other non-railway staff; 5 (3.81 percent) due to failure of equipments; 6 (4.58 percent) due to sabotage; 1 (0.76 percent) due to combination of factors; 3 (2.29 percent) due to incidental factors; and 1 (0.76 percent) accident due to unknown reasons.

More crucially, in December 2015, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) slammed railways for the delay in sanctioning and completing repair works of tracks and old bridges saying it “posed a threat to human lives”. It noted that in 31 out of 102 bridgeworks test checked, railways took on an average 43 months to sanction the bridgeworks after its identification for rehabilitation. The auditor also found that there was shortfall in achievement of target in nine zonal railways and that there was also under-utilisation of funds to the extent of Rs 60.95 crore on an average year.

 The national auditor had also pulled up railways for receiving fake currency notes of Rs 92.33 lakh during the last five years while reprimanding the transporter for not adhering to the prescribed rules for dealing with such cases. The CAG which examined the records for the period from 2010-11 to 2014-15 up to July 2014, cautioned that this led to possibility of re-circulation of fake currency in the open market.

In an another report, the CAG found that short circuit, poor maintenance and lack of awareness are major reasons of fire in trains. It also noted that the automatic smoke/fire detection devices in running trains are not properly functional. The report observed that Corporate Safety Plan (CSP) envisaged bringing down the number of accidents by 80 percent from 2001-02 to 2013 but number of accidents went up by 160 percent during the period. The loss of human lives in fire accidents in passenger coaches steeply increased from three in 2001-02 to nine in 2011-12, to 32 in 2012-13 and 35 in 2013-14. CAG in its report flayed the Ministry of railways over ill-equipped and ill-planned safety programme of the Indian Railways.  Derailment is also a major cause of rail accidents.

To be sure, in its report submitted to the Government in February, the Centre’s High-Level Safety Review Committee under the Chairmanship of Dr Anil Kakodkar claimed that almost 50 per cent of the train accidents is due to derailment combined with human errors. The Kakodkar Committee paints a grim picture of Indian Railways performance, mainly due to poor infrastructure, insufficient resources and lack of empowerment at the functional level. It suggests adoption of advanced signaling system for the entire trunk route length of 19,000 km within five years at an estimated cost of Rs 20,000 crores. It recommended complete elimination of level crossings at a proposed cost of Rs 50,000 crore.

What is the crying need of the hour is implementation of what the Kakodkar panel report recommended, CAG recommended and spending the major share of allocated money on railways for safety purposes. Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu recently launched TMS (track maintenance service) software to monitor track maintenance round-the-clock. Despite the minister’s directive, what we see on ground is that the access to TMS is still denied to safety wing. A railway official said that, “As a result, the monitoring mechanism becomes a closely guarded secret defeating the very purpose of the launching of the software application”.

All said and done, unless the right lessons are learnt from repeated rail accidents and concretes steps not taken to rectify them, we will see nothing happening except the same sequence of events again playing out before us. This is what Is most reprehensible. Before ushering in bullet train, railway ministry must see that track repair, signal updation and improvement of facilities is done to the maximum possible extent.

Let it be said forthright that safety of train passengers comes first, always and everytime and rest everything later. More needs to be done to maintain our trains, tracks and systems to ensure the complete safety of rail passengers.

On a more positive note, it is the Government’s bounden duty to provide safe rail and road transport to the country’s population before committing resources to the 1 per cent for bullet trains. Also, the government prides itself on the 160-km-per hour run of the Gatimaan Express between Delhi and Agra. A more pragmatic approach would be to restrict speed limits at 100-120 km per hour and focus on safety first and foremost.

The major train accidents that took place in last few years. Many precious lives have been lost in such rail accidents. The correct sequence of rail accidents which claimed many lives are as follows : –

March 20, 2015 : Janta Express going from Dehradun to Varanasi derails in which 34 died.

May 4, 2014 : Diva Sawantwadi passenger train derails between Nagothane and Roha station in which 20 died.

August 19, 2013 : Fire in Rajdhani Express killed 28.

July 30, 2012 : Fire erupts in a coach of Delhi to Chennai TamilNadu Express at Nellore in which 30 died.

July 7, 2011 : An accident between a train and bus in Uttar Pradesh leaves 38 dead.

May 28, 2010 : At least 148 people were killed after the Gyaneshwari Express was derailed by Naxals in West Midnapore district of West Bengal.

October 21, 2009 : Engine of Goa Express clashed with a bogey of Mewar Express leaving 22 dead.

September 9, 2002 : 100 passengers were killed after a bogie of Howrah-Delhi Rajdhani plunged into the Dhave river in Bihar’s Aurangabad district.

August 2, 1999 : At least 290 passengers were killed after two trains carrying a total of 2,500 people collided at Gaisal.

November 26, 1998 : At least 212 people were killed as the Jammu Tawi-Sealdah Express collided with derailed coaches of the Frontier Mail near Khanna in Punjab.

September 14, 1997 : 81 people were killed wh en five bogies of Ahmedabad-Howrah express fell into a river in Bilaspur district of then Madhya Pradesh ( but now in Chhattisgarh).

August 20, 1995 : 400 people were killed after the Puroshottam Express rammed into Kalindi Express near Firozabad railway station in Uttar Pradesh.

April 18, 1988 : At least 75 people were killed when the Karnataka Express derailed near Lalitpur in Uttar Pradesh.

July 8, 1988 : 107 people were killed, when the Island express plunged into Ashtamudi lake in Kerala.

June 6, 1981 : Train got thrown in river in Bihar by storm in which 800 people were left dead.


Some important Committees which gave their invaluable suggestions on rail safety. It is most tragic that the recommendations of most such Committees are not implemented. Hope now at least things will change. The important rail safety Committees which are still gathering dust are as follows : –

1954: Justice Shahnawaz Committee suggested policy reforms to ensure centrality of safety in operations. Not implemented.

1962: Justice Kunzru Committee recommended separation of cadres of diesel and electric loco pilots. Not implemented.

1968: Justice Wanchoo Committee also suggested separation of cadres of diesel and electric loco pilots. Not implemented.

1978: Justice Sikri Committee recommended infusion of funds to ensure safety. Not implemented.

1998: Justice HR Khanna Committee made 278 suggestions of which 169 were accepted, 70 were partially accepted but key suggestion for safety regulator was not accepted.

2001: Justice Sagir Ahmed panel set up to look  into Howrah-Amritsar mail accident. Suggestions are still under consideration.

2004: Justice GC Garg panel set up to look into Golden Temple Mail and Sealdah Express accident. Suggestions are still under consideration.

2012: Safety review Committee headed by Anil Kakodkar submitted 106 recommendations of which 68 accepted, 19 partially accepted, 19 rejected and only 27 suggestions implemented.

Needless to add, the signalling and tracking of trains must be completely modernised to incorporate satellite positioning, commonplace even in taxis. Train drivers should have access to displays with real time data and maps. Also, it must be borne in mind that computerized coordination will do away with clearing of tracks excessively in advance for high-speed trains and enable better utilization of track capacity.

It needs no rocket scientist to conclude that many tracks are very old and they need renovation and that too complete in all respects right now. Sam Pitroda Committee had called for renewal of 19,000 kilometres railway lines and had called for making 11,250 bridges modern to meet the present circumstances. It must be now implemented. Poor rail quality must be improved and more maintenance of rail tracks must be done on a war footing. Here I must also point out that the existing rail lines must be first set right and strengthened on a priority basis and then later new lines should be created. Till now, we see that the highest number of accidents in India occur because of derailments and accidents at level crossings. Nine out of ten railway accidents that took place during 2009-10 and 2014-15 have been due to derailments and accidents at level crossings.

To say the least, now at least we must act and act fast so that many more precious lives can be saved from dying. India’s reputation as a tourist destination has taken a huge knock because of such unwanted rail accidents which claims the lives of so many innocent people who die an untimely death for no fault of theirs! Above all, the invaluable lives of people cannot be compromised under any circumstances as we have most unfortunately been seeing repeatedly in our country.

It merits no reiteration that all possible steps must be taken to ensure that safety of people who travel by train is accorded the first and the highest priority. What we see for ourselves as ground reality presents a very grim picture. It is most tragic that we fail to learn by repeated train accidents and they keep repeating themselves year after year. This must end now once and for all! The earlier this is done, the safer our people will be who always prefer to travel by train even though they have the means to travel by other ways. Let us fervently hope so always!

Finally, on a concluding note, let me again say that there can be no gainsaying that we must always remember that it is high time and now the government must order a safety audit of all tracks. It brooks no more dilly-dallying for any reason whatsoever. We have already lost so many precious lives. Assistant loco pilots who are posted as bungalow peons or computer operators must be placed where they actually should be so that safety preparedness is not compromised under any circumstances. Also, the amended Railway Act of 1989 insulates Grade-A or Class 1 officers from accountability in train accidents, as only Grade-C employees have been empowered to provide safety certification of tracks and coaches. This many times lead to Grade-C employees being compelled by superiors to compromise on routine safety drills because of pressure to achieve the organisation’s business objectives and this must be checked effectively by taking strong steps. Old railway bridges must be repaired in time. More ultrasonic track flaw detection machines should be procured and used regularly by Railways.

How many more lives we will lose before finally acting decisively against all those causes which leads to train accidents? The railways have accounted for approximately three times the combined number of people killed in train accidents in Canada, UK, Germany and Japan in the last decade. It is entirely up to the Government in the Centre  which controls railways how it deals with rail safety and it must now take radical steps to ensure that no more precious lives are lost in the future because of avoidable train accidents. It is the bounden duty of Central Government to do all best possible to make sure that rail accidents don’t happen so regularly and people don’t lose lives in such a tragic manner!

by Sanjeev Sirohi        

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