Bizarre train collision raises rail safety issues - GulfToday

Bizarre train collision raises rail safety issues

BRP Bhaskar

@brpbhaskar

Indian journalist with over 50 years of newspaper, news agency and television experience.

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The Railways claim to have fitted anti-collision devices in all trains. They do not appear to have worked.

A multiple train collision, which killed at least 288 persons and injured about 300 others, has brought the issue of rail safety to the fore. India’s railway system originated under private auspices in the colonial period. It is now the nation’s biggest state undertaking. With 115,000 kms of track, India boasts of the world’s largest rail network. Each day more than 13,000 passenger trains carry over 23 million people from one place to another. This is like moving the entire population of Australia. Also, each day about 7,500 freight trains carry three million metric tons of goods across the country.

The triple collision occurred at Balasore in the eastern state of Odisha. Two of the trains involved were express passenger trains linking West Bengal’s capital, Kolkata, with Tamil Nadu’s capital, Chennai, and Karnataka’s capital, Bengaluru. The third one was a freight train. Early reports indicated it was a bizarre accident. Some 15 coaches of an express train derailed and fell on a parallel track. Its engine entered a loop line and crashed into a stationary goods train. A few minutes later the other passenger train, moving in the opposite direction, hit the derailed bogies of the first one.

The government has ordered an enquiry to ascertain the causes of the accident. In the meantime, there is discussion in the public realm on whether there was a failure of the signaling system. It is pointed out that if the system was functioning well, the second passenger train’s entry into the scene of the accident could have been prevented.

The Railways claim to have fitted anti-collision devices in all trains. They do not appear to have worked. The cause of the large-scale derailment of passenger coaches  needs to be investigated thoroughly to rule out possible laxity in the proper maintenance of tracks and rolling stock.

There is also a larger issue of railway finances and management that merit attention in this context. Until 2016 the Central government used to place before Parliament a railway budget each year. The Narendra Modi government merged the railway budget in the Central budget. The decision may have been justified on administrative and financial considerations. But it will be worthwhile to examine if the change led to a weakening of parliamentary control over railway administration.  

Those familiar with the working of the Indian railway system have pointed out that it is caught in a low incremental-growth trap.  While there has been significant progress in recent years, both in quantitative and qualitative terms, it is still plagued by several issues that cry for urgent attention. The most important among them relate to safety.

The railways stand in urgent need of empowered safety regulators. Yet , the government’s policy of upgrading technology and reducing employment has resulted in a fall in the number of persons involved in activities relating to safety.

Railway finances have been under severe strain recent years as a result of wage revision and market borrowings to raise funds for developmental needs. Currently about 400 main railway stations in the country are being redeveloped.

The government is also devoting increased attention to introduction of luxury trains for which there is a growing demand from the affluent. A careful study needs to be undertaken to assess realistically how all this impacts  maintenance activities and safety measures.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first reaction to the collision, one of the worst rail accidents in living memory, indicated that he was not treating it as just another accident. Anyone found to have been at fault would be punished heavily, he said.

The government has entrusted the probe to the Central Bureau of Investigation. Since the probe is sure to extend beyond the normal limits of criminal investigation, the government must seriously consider entrusting the probe to a special investigation team working under the supervision of the Supreme Court.

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