Prevention is always better than cure. To ensure that senseless collisions such as the one at Samlaya do not happen again, existing systems need to be implemented strictly through rigorous training and conducting intensive random checks. Vital inputs to replace old tracks, rolling stock, signalling gear and upgrading repair procedures to eliminate human error in all areas of maintenance and operation need much higher priority. Sinking crores of rupees into the unproven technology is hardly the way to improve the Railway's safety record.

R. C. Acharya

ALMOST a decade ago, August 20, 1995, to be exact, the Purshottam Express rammed into the Kalindi Express at Ferozabad, Uttar Pradesh, claiming 400 lives, perhaps the highest death toll in the 150-year history of the Indian Railways.

Again, in November 1998, the Jammu-Tawi Express collided with the three derailed bogies of the Golden Temple Express on the double line, near Khanna, leaving 108 dead.

Four years later, on September 9, 2004, a bogie of the Howrah-Delhi Rajdhani Express derailed and plunged into the Dhave river in Bihar, killing 100.

Fourteen passengers lost their lives when the Matsyagandha Express hit a boulder fallen on the track near Ambawali, on the Konkan Railway, on June 16, 2004.

Within six months, on June 14, the Jammu Tawi-Ahmedabad Express collided with the stationary Jalandhar-Pathankot Express in Punjab.

And now, a few days ago, the Sabarmati Express collided with the rear a container special standing at Samlaya, about 30 kmfrom Vadodara, leaving 20 dead and over a 100 injured. However, none of these accidents could have been prevented by `Suraksha Kavach', the much-touted `magic wand', developed by the Konkan Railway Corporation to prevent collisions.

Proposed to be introduced at a cost of Rs 1,500 crore on the NF Railway zone, it would cost a whopping Rs 27,000 crore to cover all the 18 zones of the Indian Railway's 64,000-km rail network.

It is expected to be in place over the next decade or so, assuming that the initial trials on the NF Railway prove successful. Of course, till then we are left to the mercy of humans failing to do the job they are paid for.

Developed as an Anti-Collision Device (ACD), the `Suraksha Kavach' is a computer-based warning system that relies on the GPS (global positioning system) technology to communicate with a train running on the same track.

One such module is mounted on the locomotive driver's cab of every train, and when a train gets too close to another, it issues warning to the driver that a safe distance has been breached. If ignored, the device automatically applies the brakes, bringing the train to a halt. Undoubtedly, an excellent piece of hardware, theoretically at least. And its working is easily explained to a layman, including the political leadership forever clutching at straws.

However, what is seldom understood and appreciated is the fact that a 4,500-tonne goods train travelling at 90 km per hour would take up to 2 km, and a super-fast express a kilometre, before coming to a halt.

Second, a train derailing on a double track with its bogies blocking the path of an approaching train, as it happened in Khanna in 1998, does not have a ghost of a chance of escaping collision.

To prevent a train from colliding with another on the same track, adequate safety features have been built into the Operating System of the Railways over the last 150 years.

World over, the Railways relies on more mundane but proven technologies including Track Circuiting of Station Yards, combined with Panel Interlocking, as the bedrock of safety at wayside stations.

This eliminates human error involved in the vital functions of train passing performed by the station staff. Moreover, the technology does not cost the moon and has well developed sources of vendors and is capable of being implemented very easily.

The Railway Minister, Mr Lalu Prasad, in his Budget speech on February 26, admitted that only 2,200 of the total 5,300 locations had been track circuited.

This provides ample room for more likely cases of human error leading to collisions of the type mentioned earlier. Track circuiting the remaining locations within the next one year should be top priority.

Prevention is always better than cure. `Suraksha Kavach' attempts to correct an unsafe situation that should not have risen in the first place. To spend scarce financial resources on cure rather than prevention is to get priorities wrong for reducing train accidents.

The existing systems need to be implemented strictly through rigorous training and conducting more intensive random checks.

Preliminary investigations at Samlaya point to the station staff and the signal maintenance personnel who appear to have been involved in routine repairs of the signal and point interlocking gear. Adoption of short-cuts, and ignoring time-honoured rules of procedure for such exercises could have been the primary cause, though only a full-fledged inquiry by the Commissioner of Railway Safetywill establish the truth.

The malaise with the Indian Railways continues to be more basic.

It lies in its failure to adopt a more pro-active approach towards selection and training of the staff, regular monitoring of their performance, punishing those found to be deficient in their levels of performance all as a well planned and continuing exercise.

Vital inputs to replace over-aged tracks, rolling stock, signalling gear and upgrading repair procedures and technology to eliminate human error in all areas of maintenance and operation need to enjoy a much higher priority.

Sinking crores of rupees into the `Surksha Kavach', of unproven technology, is hardly the way to improve the Railway's safety record.

(The author is a former Member Mechanical of the Railway Board. Feedback may be sent to acharya@ernet.in)

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated April 25, 2005)
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