Rail accident puts authorities in a spot - GulfToday

Rail accident puts authorities in a spot


The government would be keen to nail the exact cause of the mishap.

The collision of trains near Balasore in Odisha, India’s eastern state, involving three of them, causing the death of over 275 people and leaving more than a thousand injured, has left one of the largest rail networks which ferries 13 million people every day across the country in a state of shock, and it has stunned the government and the people. It has been the most serious mishap in more than 20 years. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had visited the site of the crash, met the rail officials, and talked to people who were getting treatment in hospitals. He said that stringent punishment would be meted out to those responsible for it. It has turned out to be a bizarre accident, where a south-bound train from Kolkata to Chennai, the Coromandel Express, rammed into a freight train waiting on a track, and as a result the coaches of the express jumped on to an adjacent track, and a north-bound train overran the coaches, causing more deaths and injuries, and resulting in a huge pileup.

That is why, it took rescue workers nearly two days to take the injured people out of the wreck, and the dead bodies. Federal Railway Minister Ashwin Vaishnaw, who had accompanied Prime Minister Modi to the crash site, said that it seemed that there was an error in the electronic signalling system. He said that the investigation will be handed over to the federal government-run Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

Coming as it does in a year before the 2024 parliamentary election, there is concern in the Modi government about the crash and its impact on the image of the ruling party. Railway Minister Vaishnaw had announced Rs200,000 for the families of persons who had died, and Rs50,000 for those seriously injured and Rs20,000 for those who sustained minor injuries.

The government would be keen to nail the exact cause of the mishap, and it would want to know whether there was a human error involved. There has been a brisk modernisation programe that the Indian railways have been undergoing, Fresh tracks have been laid, and trains running at the speed of 180 kilometres per hour (kmph) connecting major cities have been started. The government, as well as the railways, have failed to plug the loopholes in the maintenance of the existing tracks. The route on which the tragic mishap has occurred is a major one connecting two important points along the east coast of India.

This would alert the government to take cautionary steps even while introducing new technology of signalling, upgrading the existing tracks and introducing automatic brake systems that would minimise the possibility of a crash. The Indian rail network is seen as the life link of the country because millions of people travel on the trains every day, and so does freight.

The government has been electrifying the rail lines to reduce dependence on diesel and also cut down on its costs as well as the carbon footprint. But more than everything else, every government is painfully aware that the rail is the only affordable and convenient mode of transport for the majority of Indian population, especially those belonging to lower income groups. Apart from the political implications in an election year, the more serious challenge to the Indian railway system is the need to keep a continuous watch on the ongoing train traffic. The rail system, which has been first laid out by the British from the middle of the 19th century, faces technological challenges of its own. There is always the possibility of a technological glitch apart from human error, and it this which makes the task so much more challenging. As more and more systems are being modernised, especially with the help of computerisation and the increasing role of Artificial Intelligence (AI), the need for human monitoring of the systems becomes so much more crucial. The notion that machines are better in avoiding errors compared to humans seems to be misplaced. There are no easy answers to this challenge.

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