[Burning Issue] India’s Railway Safety Crisis: A Grim Reality Unveiled

odisha incident railway
railway safety crisis

Central Idea

  • With over 280 people dead and more than 900 injured, the triple train crash in Odisha’s Balasore is one of India’s worst train tragedies.
  • Two express passenger trains and a freight train were involved in a “three-way accident” near a small station.
  • One train collided into a stationary freight train, causing its coaches to flip over to a third track and derailing an incoming train.
  • Preliminary reports indicate that signal failure was the cause of the accident.

Causes of the accident

train railway odisha incident

There are four major causes of train accidents in India: 

  1. Derailment 
  2. Level crossing accidents
  3. Collisions
  4. Fire

There are many unanswered questions on what exactly led to this deadly multiple-train collision. We however try to ascertain some legacy issues in Indian Railways safety.

  • Signal Failure: Preliminary reports indicate that the accident was caused by signal failure. This suggests that there may have been a failure or malfunction in the signalling system, leading to a breakdown in communication or incorrect signals given to the trains involved.
  • Colliding into Stationary Freight Train: One of the trains involved in the accident collided into a stationary freight train. The cause of this collision could be attributed to factors such as failure to adhere to signal instructions, human error, or a failure in braking systems.
  • Coaches Flipping Over to Third Track: Due to the collision, the coaches of the train that collided with the stationary freight train flipped over and moved onto a third track. This suggests a significant impact and force exerted during the collision, potentially indicating excessive speed, braking failures, or structural vulnerabilities.
  • Derailment of Coming Train: The collision and subsequent flipping of coaches onto a third track caused an incoming train to derail. The derailment could be attributed to the obstruction on the tracks, leading to loss of control and the train veering off its intended path.

A glimpse of Railway Mishaps in India

Railway accidents in India have been caused by various factors, including:

Human ErrorMistakes or negligence by railway staff, such as train drivers, signal operators, or maintenance workersErrors in signalling Misjudgment of distances Improper maintenance practices Ex. Failure to follow safety protocols, like the 2010 West Bengal train derailment due to sabotage by Maoist rebels.
Track DefectsPoorly maintained tracks with defects like fractures, misalignment, or subsidenceLack of regular inspection Inadequate maintenance Ex. Delayed repairs, such as the 2017 Pukhrayan train derailment caused by track defects leading to the deaths of over 140 passengers.
Equipment FailureMalfunctioning or faulty equipment, including locomotives, coaches, wagons, or signalling systemsPoor maintenance Aging infrastructure   Manufacturing defects, Ex. 2019 Bikaner train fire caused by a faulty transformer in the power car.
Level Crossing AccidentsCollisions between trains and road vehicles at level crossingsUnmanned or poorly managed level crossings Lack of proper warning systems Ex. 2018 Kushinagar accident where a school van was hit by a train at an unmanned level crossing.
Overloading and OverspeedingOverloading of trains beyond capacity and exceeding speed limitsEx. 2016 Kanpur train accident caused by an overloaded train derailing due to excessive speed.
Extreme WeatherHeavy rains, fog, or extreme temperatures Landslides, floods, or falling debrisEx. 2020 Kozhikode train derailment caused by heavy rain and landslides.
Communication and Signalling FailuresMalfunctioning or misinterpretation of communication systemsSignalling equipment malfunctions Miscommunication between train operators and control centers Ex. 2015 Diva-Sawantwadi train collision due to a communication failure.
Operational ErrorsImproper routing , Incorrect switching, Lack of situational awareness2014 Gorakhpur train accident caused by improper switching resulting in a collision.
Security ThreatsActs of terrorism, vandalism, or sabotage targeting railway infrastructure or trainsEx. 2005 Jaunpur train bombings orchestrated by terrorists.
Maintenance and Inspection FailuresInadequate maintenance practices, delayed inspections, or insufficient adherence to safety standardsEx. 2018 Amritsar train accident caused by inadequate inspection leading to a collision with a Dussehra event crowd.

Key stats

train rail accident incident odisha

[A] Train Collisions and Other Incidents

  • Collisions accidents are rare: On average, train collisions have accounted for approximately 4.7% of all train accidents in the past two decades.
  • Derailments are frequent: Other incidents such as derailments, level crossing accidents, fires, and miscellaneous events occur at a significantly higher frequency than train collisions.

[B] Declining Trend in Total Train Accidents

  • Steady decline:  In the year 2001-02, there were 415 train accidents, which has significantly decreased to 34 incidents by the year 2021-22.
  • Pandemic impact: The number of accidents further decreased to 59 in 2018-19 and 21 in 2020-21 due to the COVID-19 pandemic but has since risen again in 2021-22, although remaining below pre-pandemic levels.

[C] Passenger Fatalities and Injuries

  • Lesser fatalities: The highest recorded figures occurred in the year 2005-06, with 315 passengers losing their lives and 627 sustaining injuries.  In 2018-19, 16 passengers were killed, and 86 were injured in train accidents.
  • Zero deaths during COVID: In the consecutive years of 2019-20 and 2020-21, no passenger deaths were recorded, although 73 passengers sustained injuries.
  • Cost to exchequer: The cumulative compensation payout from 2017-18 to 2021-22 stands at less than Rs 14 crore.

Measures to Prevent Railway Accidents

Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh (RRSK)Introduced in 2017-18 with a corpus of ₹1 lakh crore for five years, RRSK aims to replace, renew, and upgrade critical safety assets, with an annual outlay of ₹20,000 crore.
Advanced sensors upgradationAdoption of technological advancements in safety aspects of coaches and wagons, including Modified Centre Buffer Couplers, Bogie Mounted Air Brake System (BMBS), improved suspension design, and Automatic fire & smoke detection system in coaches.
Transition to LHB CoachesReplacement of conventional ICF design coaches with LHB (Linke Hofmann Busch) design coaches for Mail/Express trains in a phased manner, offering enhanced safety features.
GPS-based Fog Pass DeviceProvision of GPS-based Fog Pass devices to loco pilots in fog-affected areas, enabling them to know the exact distance of approaching landmarks like signals and level crossing gates, enhancing safety during foggy conditions.
Modern Track StructureUtilization of modern track structures, including Prestressed Concrete Sleepers (PSC), 60 KG or higher Ultimate Tensile Strength (UTS) rails, fanshaped layout turnout on PSC sleepers, and Steel Channel Sleepers on girder bridges during primary track renewals.
Long Rail PanelsManufacture of long rail panels of 260 M/130M length to minimize the number of Aluminothermic joints in the track, reducing the chances of rail-related accidents.
Provision of Thick Web Switches (TWS)Equipping important routes of Indian Railways with Thick Web Switches (TWS) to expedite their provision and enhance safety.
Ultrasonic Flaw Detection (USFD) TestingConducting USFD testing on rails to detect flaws and ensure timely removal of defective rails, thereby enhancing safety.
Train Protection and Warning System (TPWS)Installation of TPWS based on European Technology ETCS Level-1 in specific sections to prevent accidents caused by human errors like Signal Passing at Danger (SPAD) or over speeding.
Auxiliary Warning System (AWS)Implementation of AWS, an ATP system, in the Mumbai suburban section of Central Railway and Western Railway covering a total of 413 RKMs.
Train Collision Avoidance System (TCAS)Development of TCAS, an ATP system, in association with three Indian manufacturers, with extensive field trials and safety validation completed. The system has been approved for developmental order in specific sections.

KAVACH: Achieving Zero Incidents

kavach rail train accident incident
  • KAVACH is an Automatic Train Protection (ATP) system developed to enhance safety in Indian Railways.
  • It is designed to prevent accidents and ensure the smooth operation of trains.
  • It is a Safety Integrity Level 4 (SIL-4) certified technology with the probability of error being one in 10,000 years. 
  • On March 4, 2022, a successful trial was conducted between the Gullaguda–Chitgidda Railway stations of South Central Railway.
  • It initiated the automatic braking system and halted the locomotives 380 metres apart. 

Some of the highlighted features of KAVACH include:

  1. Prevention of Signal Passing at Danger (SPAD): KAVACH helps prevent trains from crossing red signals and ensures adherence to signal instructions.
  2. Continuous Movement Authority Update: The system provides real-time updates on movement authority, displaying signal aspects in the Driver Machine Interface (DMI) or Loco Pilot Operation cum Indication Panel (LPOCIP).
  3. Automatic Braking for Prevention of Overspeeding: KAVACH automatically initiates the braking system if the train exceeds the prescribed speed limits, preventing accidents caused by overspeeding.
  4. Auto Whistling at Level Crossing Gates: The system activates automatic whistle sounds when approaching level crossing gates, ensuring timely alerts to pedestrians and road users.
  5. Prevention of Collision between Locomotives: KAVACH helps prevent collisions between two locomotives equipped with the system, adding an extra layer of safety.
  6. SoS Messages in Emergency Situations: In case of emergencies, KAVACH facilitates the sending of distress messages or SoS signals, enabling prompt response and assistance.
  7. Centralized Live Monitoring: The system allows for centralized live monitoring of train movements through a Network Monitor System, providing real-time information on train positions and ensuring effective management.

Could KAVACH have prevented the Odisha accident?

  • KAVACH could have potentially prevented the Odisha accident, but it’s important to note that KAVACH was not available on the route where the accident occurred.
  • KAVACH, with its automatic braking, signal adherence, and collision prevention capabilities, could have detected the situation and initiated appropriate actions to prevent or minimize the impact of the accident.
  • However, since it was not implemented on that particular route at the time, it was not able to play a role in preventing the incident.

A matter of Deliberate Ignorance: Says CAG

The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) highlighted several issues regarding various train incidents in its 2022 report titled “Derailment in Indian Railways.” Here are some key points from the report:

  • Institutional Problems: The CAG’s analysis of railway accidents between 2017 and 2021 suggests that the problem lies within the railway institution itself rather than individual errors. The report states that maintenance activities were managed with staffing vacancies and minimal outsourcing, impacting the quality of maintenance.
  • Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh (RRSK): The report mentions the railway safety fund introduced in 2017-18, but it states that funds allocated for track renewals were not effectively utilized. Non-priority areas received a significant portion of the funds, while the allotment for track renewal declined over the years, leading to a decline in safety-related works.
  • Need for technical overhaul: The report attributes derailments to factors like defects in wheel diameter and defects in coaches/wagons. It also mentions accidents caused by the incorrect setting of points and other mistakes in shunting operations.
  • Basic maintenance: As the government focused on the high-profile launches of Vande Bharat trains, railway infrastructure was crying out for funds for basic maintenance, said the CAG report.
  • Issues with goods train: More than 3.30 lakh wagons were passed without approval after repairs in workshops and terminal yards compromising with rail safety. According to railway data from 2016-17 to 2020-21, the average speed of goods trains has halved due to excessive unnecessary stoppages at loading-unloading points.

Key recommendations by Anil Kakodkar Committee

The Ministry of Railways had appointed a High-Level Safety Review Committee under the chairmanship of Dr Anil Kakodkar to review the safety of the Indian Railways and recommend improvements. The report was submitted in February 2012.

  • Creation of a Railway Safety Authority: The Committee suggests the establishment of a statutory Railway Safety Authority with sufficient powers to oversee and regulate safety on the railways, independent of the Railway Board.
  • Restructuring of RDSO: The Research Design and Standards Organization (RDSO) should be restructured for greater empowerment, enabling it to embrace emerging technologies effectively. Additionally, the Committee proposes the creation of a Railway Research and Development Council (RRDC) directly under the government.
  • Adoption of Advanced Signalling System: The entire trunk route length of 19,000 km should be equipped with an Advanced Signalling System, similar to the European Train Control System, within five years. The estimated cost for this implementation is Rs 20,000 crore.
  • Elimination of Level Crossings: All Level Crossings, both manned and unmanned, should be eliminated within five years. This target would require an estimated expenditure of Rs 50,000 crore. The Committee expects that this investment will be recovered within 7-8 years through savings in maintenance costs and improved train operations.
  • Switch to LHB Design Coaches: The Committee recommends switching from the ICF design coaches to the safer LHB design coaches. This transition is expected to cost Rs 10,000 crore over the next five years.
  • Safety Infrastructure Maintenance: The Committee suggests investing approximately Rs 20,000 crore in the maintenance of safety-related infrastructure.
  • Financial Investment: The Committee recommends a total financial investment of Rs 1,00,000 crore over a five-year period to address the current safety and infrastructure challenges.

Way forward

  • Implement recommendations: Act on the recommendations of the Anil Kakodkar Committee, including creating a Railway Safety Authority, restructuring RDSO, adopting advanced signalling systems, eliminating level crossings, and transitioning to safer LHB coaches.
  • Strengthen maintenance: Focus on regular inspection and maintenance of tracks, coaches, and infrastructure, addressing backlogs and improving overall conditions.
  • Embrace technology: Invest in advanced sensors, GPS-based systems, and automatic fire detection to enhance safety features in coaches and wagons.
  • Ensure safety oversight: Establish an independent regulatory body to monitor and enforce safety standards, ensuring accountability and adherence to protocols.
  • Allocate adequate funds: Prioritize safety expenditure, effectively utilize funds like the Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh, and regularly review funding to meet evolving safety requirements.
  • Learn from international best practices: Collaborate with experts and organizations to gain insights and expertise from countries with exemplary railway safety records.
  • Promote a safety culture: Foster a safety-first mindset through awareness campaigns, training programs, and public outreach initiatives.

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