The GFCJ Container train moving at around 45 kmph collided with the 13174 Kanchenjunga Express from behind after passing Rangapani station near New Jalpaiguri, resulting in 10 fatalities and approximately 40 other casualties.

Another major rail accident has triggered the usual clamour, with various narratives and theories circulating and calls for the Railway Minister’s resignation. Let me steer away from this cacophony and counterblast to present what is not so obvious.

Within hours of the accident, the CEO of Indian Railways (IR) addressed the media, making the standard statements about ongoing rescue and restoration efforts. However, in a departure from the usual non-committal stance regarding the prima facie cause, the CEO stated that the loco pilot of the goods train had disregarded signals.

She mentioned that both crew members had perished and indicated that the rollout of Kavach, the train signalling and protection system, was progressing slowly due to lack of capacity with the allied industry.

Information gaps

Shortly thereafter, IR appeared to retract the initial claim, indicating that it was not solely an error on the part of the goods train’s loco pilot.

They introduced the possibility of multiple signal failures and revealed that the station master had issued a memo allowing the loco pilot to pass failed signals.

Additionally, it was clarified that the assistant loco pilot was alive and recovering in the hospital. This level of misinformation at the highest level is not a trivial matter. It highlights serious discrepancies in how IR handles accidents and disseminates related information.

The statutory inquiry by the Commissioner of Railway Safety (CRS) has already begun, and we will soon know the cause and responsibility for the mishap.

However, it is clear that the loco pilot of the goods train failed to take necessary precautions regarding restricted speed, and an ambiguous memo was indeed issued by the station master. While they are likely to be held accountable, the question remains: should the responsibility end there?

It is quite likely that this was not an isolated case of human error and similar instances of negligence or careless operation occur frequently, going unquestioned as they result in no accidents or, at worst, near misses. It is hoped that the CRS will thoroughly examine this aspect, and if managerial apathy is established, accountability should extend much higher up the hierarchy.

The issue of managerial indifference brings us to the aspect of utilising modern tools to improve safety. Despite the availability of extensive digital data related to train operations —such as station data loggers, axle counters, and advanced microprocessors on locomotives and trains — there is a glaring absence of meaningful, day-to-day alerts generated from this data. Currently, the data is only used for delayed post-mortem analyses. Given that manual analysis is too cumbersome and time-consuming, AI-enabled applications must be implemented.

These tools would not only ensure quick post-mortem analyses but also generate real-time critical alerts for top management.

This, in turn, would enable focused attention on root causes, fostering a culture of enhanced monitoring and overall safety consciousness.

Despite recommendations in this direction for several years, and a strong push for it following the massively fatal Balasore tragedy, little progress has been made in this area. Implementing AI-driven solutions is essential to transform the approach to safety in railway operations.

Costly delay

Had Kavach, an indigenous signalling system designed to enhance capacity and safety, been installed in the area, it would have prevented the accident by stopping the train at every red signal and controlling its speed to the stipulated level. IR has clearly favoured Kavach over the established imported signalling system, ETCS Level II, since nearly last three years, indicating their full confidence in it.

Given that IR is receiving unprecedented investment, approximately ₹2.6-lakh crore annually, why is the rollout of Kavach so slow? The system has not advanced even by a kilometre in the last three years beyond the 1,400 kilometres covered on South Central Railway. The argument of lack of capacity in the industry does not hold, as it is IR’s responsibility to create capacities through progressive policies. This appears to be a case of lack of focus, resulting in sluggish execution.

IR’s safety record, in terms of fatalities per year, has definitely improved over the years due to measures such as enhanced track maintenance and the elimination of unmanned level crossings, part of a continuous effort by successive governments.

However, it is no longer sufficient to compare with the past and hide behind data. Investments in safety works over the years, albeit inadequate, mean that not only must the number of accidents continue to decrease, but with the availability of modern tools, the aim should be to move towards a zero-fatality record. The time for IR to wake up is now.

The writer is Retd. General Manager/Indian Railways, Leader of Train 18/Vande Bharat project and Independent Rail Consultant