Three major rail accidents in three years: What is the government doing?

Despite repeated train accidents, implementation of safety measures remains slow and inadequate.

Published : Jun 20, 2024 21:15 IST - 5 MINS READ

Rescue operation underway at the Kanchanjunga Express train accident site, in Darjeeling on June 17. At least eight people died in the accident. 

Rescue operation underway at the Kanchanjunga Express train accident site, in Darjeeling on June 17. At least eight people died in the accident.  | Photo Credit: ANI

What will it take for the government to focus on railway safety? With one major accident a year (with a break for Covid-19), train travel has not become much safer despite all the talk about improved technology.

The latest accident, in Darjeeling, the hill station in West Bengal, on June 17 when a goods train rammed into the Kanchanjunga Express killing 10 and injuring dozens more, has evoked pretty much the same response that we saw last year this time. Almost exactly a year ago on June 2, 2023, 296 people were killed when the Coromandel Express, the Yeshwantpur-Howrah Superfast Express and a goods train collided in Balasore, Odisha. “Human error” was blamed then—and is being blamed now too.

Soon after the Kanchanjunga Express crash, the Chairman and CEO of the Railway Board, Jaya Verma Sinha, blamed the loco pilot of the goods train who had lost his life in the crash. This appeared to be the usual knee-jerk self-exculpating reaction of the higher authorities of the Railways. Last year, the authorities blamed the stationmaster and others for the Balasore tragedy.

Not all Railways people agree with this kind of passing the buck. Speaking to Frontline, Samir Goswami, retired Chief Public Relation Officer of Indian Railways said: “The way Jaya Verma Sinha placed the blame on the driver of the goods train really cannot be accepted. The investigation takes a number of days and requires a number of officers to carry it out.To make a comment that it is the driver’s fault within half an hour of the news of the accident is not on. This comment may very well influence the investigation… There is an acute shortage of operation staff and a lot of vacancies. The drivers and other workers are not getting adequate rest. If the driver of the goods train had indeed fallen asleep, it is the Railways that is responsible for remaining short-staffed and for placing inhuman pressure on its workforce. But any administration, especially in our country, wants a scapegoat.”

What happened to Kanchanjunga Express?

The accident took place less than an hour after the Kanchanjunga Express had left the New Jalpaiguri station and was somewhere between the Rangapani and Chattar Hat stations. A goods train, travelling at high speed, crashed into the rear of the passenger train. The fact that the Second Class Luggagevan and the two parcel compartments situated at the rear of the Kanchanjunga Express took the brunt of the impact of the fast-moving goods train, restricted the number of casualties.

Also Read | Kanchanjunga Express train accident a result of failure at all levels of Railway hierarchy

The first to arrive at the scene of the Kanchanjunga crash were the local villagers. Armed with domestic tools and makeshift equipment, they worked through the mangled, twisted iron to extricate the injured and the dead from the wreckage, hours before the rescue personnel arrived. According to reports, they even arranged for some to be taken to nearby medical dispensaries and hospitals in rickshaws and other local vehicles.

The image of a bogey jutting up skyward atop the compartment of another train brought back memories of another rail disaster that took place 24 years ago in August 1999 at Gaisal in north Bengal, where a signalling error resulted in a violent head-on collision between the Avadh Assam Express and the Brahmaputra Mail, killing 285 people.

Can train crashes be avoided?

The trouble for the Railways is that such serious accidents cannot (and do not) have a single scapegoat; these accidents are the result of failures at all levels of Railways hierarchy.

According to Goswami, the government should take four measures immediately, rather than “indulge in political gimmicks and cosmetic changes”. “There should focus on quality rail lines, proper signal link system, good condition of the trains and compartments, and last but not the least, sufficient number of qualified staff. The fact that there is a lacuna at the supervisory level is evident in the quality of the journey of the passengers,” said Goswami.

Also Read | Monumental train disaster at Balasore puts issues plaguing Railways in focus

Back in 2011, the then Railways Minister, Mamata Banerjee, had approved a pilot of an anti-collision system for trains. Later that year, she stepped down as Railways Minister to take over as Chief Minister of West Bengal. Meanwhile, the anti-collision system was in the works and was finally completed in 2022, when it was introduced to the country as Kavachor armour for Indian trains.

Some of the major train accidents since 2014
  • 2014 – Gorakhdham Express derailment in Uttar Pradesh
  • 2015 – Janata Express in Uttar Pradesh
  • 2016 – Indore Patna Express in Uttar Pradesh
  • 2017 – Hirakand Express in Andhra Pradesh
  • 2019 – Seemanchal Express in Bihar
  • 2022 – Bikaner-Guwahati Express in Jalpaiguri
  • 2023 – Triple train collision of the Coromandel Express, the Yeshwantpur-Howrah Superfast Express, and a goods train in Odisha
  • 2024 – Kanchanjunga Express tragedy

While the Railway authorities claim that the system is being implemented in “mission mode”, things appear vastly different on ground. According to the Minister for Railways, Ashwini Vaishnaw, “Kavach had been deployed on 1,465 km and in 139 locomotives, including Electric Multiple Unit rakes, in South Central Railway”. This was in a written reply to a question in the Lok Sabha late last year.

In his reply, Vaishnaw added: “Presently Kavach tenders have been awarded for Delhi—Mumbai & Delhi—Howrah corridors (approximately 3000 Route km) and work is in progress on these routes.” Given that the railway network in India is 1,26,366 km, there’s a long way to go before all routes have anti-collision systems in place.

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