The Issue of Indian Railway Safety- Explained Pointwise

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The Issue of Indian Railway safety is again under scrutiny with the recent incident of freight train ramming into a passenger train, near Siliguri in West Bengal, which left at least nine people dead and more than 40 injured. Last year, the tragic Balasore train accident also highlighted the grim situation of railway safety prevailing in the country. These accidents highlight the urgent need for comprehensive reforms and improved safety protocols to ensure the well-being of passengers and prevent such devastating accidents in the future.

Table of Content
What are the previous train accidents due to lapses in Indian railway safety?
Why the safety of Indian Railways is paramount?
What are various government initiatives to address the Indian railway safety concerns?
What are the challenges in ensuring the safety of Indian railways?
What should be the way Forward?

What are the previous train accidents due to lapses in Indian railway safety?

The Issue of Indian railway safety
Source- The Hindu

According to the National Crime Records Bureau, an average 23,000 people died every year between 2010 and 2021 in railway accidents.

DerailmentsDerailments have been a major cause of train accidents in India. Lapses in safety protocols, track maintenance, and failure to identify and rectify track defects have resulted in derailments. For ex- The derailment of the Puri-Haridwar Utkal Express in 2017, which claimed 23 lives and injured many, was attributed to negligence in track maintenance.
CollisionsTrain collisions have occurred due to lapses in signalling systems, human errors, and failure to maintain safe distances between trains. For ex- Collision between the Gorakhdham Express and a halted goods train in Uttar Pradesh, in 2014, resulting in a high number of casualties and injuries.
Signal failuresMalfunctioning or improper signalling systems have been responsible for train accidents. Inadequate maintenance, faulty equipment, and human errors in signalling operations have resulted in collisions and other mishaps. For ex- The collision of two trains in Gaisal, West Bengal (1999), occurred due to a signalling error.
Level crossing accidentsLapses in ensuring the safety of level crossings have led to accidents involving trains and road vehicles. Failure to eliminate manned level crossings, inadequate warning systems, and negligence in adhering to safety procedures have contributed to such accidents. For ex- Train-bus collision in the Kanshiramnagar district of Uttar Pradesh, which killed 38 people and injured 17 people.
Overcrowding and overspeedingOvercrowding of trains beyond their capacity and overspeeding have also led to accidents. Lack of proper crowd management and failure to enforce speed limits have been significant safety concerns. For ex- The 2018 Amritsar train accident, where a train struck a crowd watching a Dussehra event near the railway tracks, causing numerous fatalities, highlights the risks associated with overcrowding.

Why the safety of Indian Railways is paramount?

1. High volume of passengers- India is the fourth-largest rail network in the world at 68,043 km and almost 3.5 billion people travel on this network annually. With a massive population and millions of people relying on the railways for their daily commute, ensuring the safety of Indian Railways becomes crucial.

2. Economic impact- Indian Railways is a crucial component of the country’s transportation infrastructure and plays a vital role in the economy. Any disruption or safety-related issues can lead to economic setbacks, affecting industries, businesses, and overall development.

3. Lifeline for economic migrants- Trains are the lifeline for a bulk of India’s poorer economic migrants. The economic survey used unreserved railway travel as a proxy for economic migration between 2011 and 2016 and concluded that the annual average inter-state migration was close to nine million.

4. Reputation and public trust- The safety of Indian Railways is essential to maintain the public’s trust and confidence in the system. Instances of accidents and safety lapses can erode the reputation of the railways and result in passengers losing faith in the reliability and security of train travel.

5. International comparison- Countries like Japan, China, and several European nations have demonstrated that high safety standards are achievable. The focus on safety is not only crucial for passenger well-being but also to align with global best practices and enhance India’s image on the international stage.

6. Regulatory compliance- Safety is a regulatory requirement and a legal obligation for Indian Railways. Adhering to safety protocols and regulations is not only necessary to prevent accidents but also to comply with national and international standards. This ensures that the railways operate within a framework that safeguards the well-being of passengers.

What are various government initiatives to address the Indian railway safety concerns?

Train accidents in India
Source- The Guardian
Kavach systemKAVACH is an indigenously developed Automatic Train Protection (ATP) System for Indian Railways. It has been deployed on 1,465 route km and 139 locomotives on South Central Railway as on February 2024.
Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh (RRSK)The Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh (RRSK) was set up with a corpus of ₹1 trillion for five years starting 2017-18. It focuses on replacing, renewing, and upgrading critical safety assets.
Project Mission RaftarIt is an Indian Railway project, introduced in the Railway Budget of 2016-17 and approved by NITI Aayog in 2017. The goal is to double the average speed of freight trains and increase passenger train speed by 50%. While the focus is on improving speed, it indirectly contributes to safety by reducing travel time and potentially minimizing the risks associated with prolonged journeys.
Maintenance and RenewalsThe railway ministry plans railway maintenance in advance. By November 2023, around 3000 kilometers of track renewals were completed, meeting 66% of the annual target.
Audit reports and recommendationsThe Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) periodically conducts audits of Indian Railways, identifying shortcomings and making recommendations to address safety concerns.
Mission Zero AccidentThe mission comprises two sub-missions.
Elimination of unmanned level crossings- The target is the elimination of all unmanned level crossings on Broad Gauge in the next 3-4 years. This will reduce deaths due to accidents and will improve the throughput of the network.
TCAS (Train Collision Avoidance System)- A new technology has been developed to equip 100% of the High-Density Network with TCAS in the next 3 years. It will prevent head-on collisions and also improve throughput with increasing average sectional speeds.
Upgradation of infrastructureThe government has been investing significant funds in the modernization and upgradation of railway infrastructure. This includes the electrification of railway lines, the expansion of rail networks, and the introduction of high-speed and ultra-high-speed lines, such as the Vande Bharat Express.
Implementation of safety measuresEfforts have been made to implement safety measures across the railway network. These include the installation of fire and smoke detection systems in coaches, the provision of fire extinguishers that aids locomotive pilots in triggering the brake system automatically.
Elimination of manned level crossingsThe government has been working towards the elimination of manned level crossings, which are prone to accidents. Efforts are being made to replace them with underpasses, overpasses, and other safety measures to enhance railway safety.

What are the challenges in ensuring the safety of Indian railways?

1. Technical glitches and system failures- The occurrence of technical glitches and system failures, such as the electronic interlocking error in the Balasore train crash, poses a significant challenge to ensuring the safety of Indian Railways. These issues can lead to signalling errors, track misalignment, and other critical safety hazards.

2. Funding constraints- The allocation and utilization of funds for safety-related works face challenges. The decline in funding for track renewal, diversion of funds to non-priority tasks, and constraints in the Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh pose obstacles to effectively addressing safety concerns.

3. Inadequate maintenance and inspections- The CAG audit reports highlight shortcomings in maintenance activities, inspections, and track renewal processes. Shortfalls in inspections, failure to submit or accept inquiry reports after accidents, and declining funding for track maintenance contribute to safety concerns.

4. Congestion and overcrowding- The Indian Railways network experiences severe congestion, especially on major trunk routes, leading to overcrowded trains and increased risks. The high volume of passengers and inadequate capacity utilization can impact safety protocols and create challenges in managing passenger flow during emergencies.

5. Compliance and implementation- Ensuring compliance with safety protocols and timely implementation of safety measures across the vast railway network is a complex challenge. The need for strict adherence to scheduled timelines for accident inquiries, acceptance of inquiry reports, and effective monitoring mechanisms is emphasized in the reports.

6. Human Factors- Human error, such as incorrect setting of points, mistakes in shunting operations, and overspeeding, has been identified as a significant factor contributing to train accidents.

7. Incomplete Safety Systems- The Kavach (Train Collision Avoidance System), though promising, covers only 1% of the rail network, insufficient to significantly reduce accidents due to human errors.

8. Increased Traffic- Post-COVID-19, there’s a 30% rise in consequential train accidents due to higher passenger and freight traffic.

9. Slow Capacity Expansion- Delayed infrastructure upgrades strain the system. For ex- The Bahanaga Bazar accident in Odisha was due to faulty wiring and signaling.

What should be the way Forward?

1. Conduction of thorough investigations- It is essential to conduct comprehensive and timely investigations into train accidents to identify the root causes and determine accountability. This includes submitting and accepting inquiry reports within prescribed timelines and ensuring that the findings are made public for analysis and discussion.

2. Strengthen maintenance practices- Prioritize track maintenance, inspections, and infrastructure upgrades to prevent derailments and ensure safe operations. We must implement mechanized methods of track maintenance and leverage improved technologies to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of maintenance activities.

3. Allocate sufficient funding- We must ensure adequate funding for safety-related works, including track renewal, signalling systems, and infrastructure upgrades. Proper utilization of funds from initiatives like the Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh (RRSK) should be ensured to address safety priorities effectively.

4. Enhance staffing and training- Address staffing shortages in safety-related positions and provide comprehensive training programs for staff members involved in train operations. Focus on improving skills, knowledge, and adherence to safety protocols to minimize human errors.

5. Implementation of advanced technologies- Embrace advanced technologies, to enhance safety monitoring, early detection of faults, and real-time decision-making.

6. Prioritize safety as a culture- Encourage reporting of safety concerns, promote safety awareness and education among staff and passengers, and instill a sense of responsibility for safety in every aspect of railway operations.

7. Establish a Safety Regulatory Body- This would oversee safety standards, especially with the increasing inclusion of private operators and new high-speed corridors.

8. Leverage Technology and AI- Adopt more advanced technologies and artificial intelligence to reduce human error and enhance overall safety operations. Successful examples of Automatic Train Protection Systems, working in the Mumbai suburban for the last few decades, could be emulated elsewhere.

Read More- The Indian Express
UPSC Syllabus- GS 3- Infrastructure, Disaster Management
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