Critical fault-lines: Exploring train accidents in India

Interestingly, in the past 20 years, tens of thousands of people have lost their lives but not even a single rail employee has even been prosecuted Photograph:( Others )

Singapore Feb 23, 2017, 07.11 AM (IST) Dhiraj Sinha

 

Deaths from train accidents are pretty frequent in India. As recently as January 2017, 36 people were killed from a train derailed in southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. More than 28,000 people died from to rail accidentsIn 2014 alone. A close analysis of rail accidents in India over the past 20 years indicates that there are two critical causes behind accidents: collision between trains and other road vehicles, between train and people, and track derailment. 

 

In recent years, the signaling system has been highly automated. For instance, the Konkan railway is innovatively using the GPS tracking system to detect the location of a train. It has led to a drastic reduction in train collisions. However, the physical status of railway tracks remains the biggest fault-line which the railways tend to overlook. 

 

The physical status of railway tracks remains the biggest fault-line which the railways tend to overlook
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Every year, new trains are started but new tracks are not laid out, leading to a heavy increase in railway traffic. The existing tracks are already at their worst levels of stress. Increasing the freight load on the goods train to full capacity has further resulted in stress levels, increase in fracture and consequently to train derailment.

 

In the UK, the Railway Safety and Standards Board is detached from Network Rail, the company which manages rail traffic. This ensures a higher degree of accountability on the part of railway safety.  In India, the railway administration is solely responsible for the safety standard. So, whenever such accidents occur, the railways work very hard to ensure that their staff is saved from possible prosecution. In many cases, mechanical or electronic failure is found to be the key reason, but there is always a human element behind such things which is not held responsible. 

 

It is interesting to note that in the past 20 years, tens of thousands of people have lost their lives, not even a single rail employee has even been prosecuted. To make things worse, in many cases, the Rail Safety Officer is an IRTS officer who barely understands the technical aspects, such as Young’s modulus of elasticity and Euler-Bernoulli Equation which govern the dynamics of the railway track.

 

The track men, the staff, who examine the status of tracks, have barely any technical education
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Stress management in railway tracks involves stopping the railway traffic once in a couple of years, opening up the nuts and bolts and then reassembling the system. However, at times the, stress levels can develop unexpectedly due to heavy traffic. The unfortunate fact is that the track men, the staff, who examine the status of tracks, have barely any technical education. They use a hammer and hit the track, if the sound is good, they move to other areas.  They examine the nuts and bolts with the naked eye. It is not a scientific way of analysing the tracks. 

 

In Western countries, optical laser-based techniques mounted on moving vehicles are used to analyse the alignment and status of tracks. An additional problem is that despite the fact that the rail tracks range in thousands of kilometres, the railways rely on just one layer of safety; if the trackmen provide wrong information about the tracks or they do not physically examine the tracks, there is no way by which the authorities can independently verify the things.

 

To add to the problem, the Indian Railway does not have a mechanism to address the post-accident safety measures. The railway boggy design has not changed much in the last 100 years since the British introduced the rail. In a boggy having a capacity of 72 people, one finds more than 500 people packed with all sorts of luggage which are spread out loosely. During accidents, the luggage flies around hitting the heads of people resulting in blood loss. A mechanism to fasten the luggage tightly on the pattern of aircraft can go a long way in reducing fatalities. 

Ideally, every train must have a medical, health and safety boggy in order to provide emergency health access
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In addition to this, there should be at least 6 to 10 emergency exit routes from the walls as well as the roof. After accidents, people remain trapped for long and at times it takes more than 20 hours to bring a metal cutter and cut the different sections for rescue operations. To add to the problems, the accident site is not segregated resulting in chaos due to visits from onlookers. These things compromise the safety of passengers resulting in an increase in casualties. Fire extinguishers, first aid etc. are absent in railway compartments as well as on railway stations. In short, health and safety are alien words in the context of our railway system. Ideally, every train must have a medical, health and safety boggy in order to provide emergency health access.

 

An additional problem is the fact that barriers with regard to adaptation of new ideas and technology are high. Organisations, such as Network Rail of UK and the SNCF of France do not have any dedicated R&D division and they have fully outsourced the R&D activities to universities and private companies like Alstom and ABB. Venture capitalists and Angel investors do not see any immediate benefit in investing in rail-related technologies as investment return is not that quick in comparison to software and consumer goods. 

 

Fortunately, the R&D divisions of Indian Railways (RDSO) exists, but it lacks technical expertise and skilled manpower. For example, Indian Railways does not have any test track facility. A visit to RDSO would convince you that it is quite a defunct organisation which is some kind of resting nest for rail engineers having barely any technical understanding.