The Konkan tragedy

Print edition : July 16, 2004

The smashed coaches of the Matsyagandha Express after it hit a boulder and derailed at Amboli village on the Konkan Railway in Maharashtra's Raigad district on June 16. - AIJAZ RAHI/AP

The June 16 accident involving the Matsyagandha Express highlights the need for fool-proof safety measures against landslips on the Konkan Railway, particularly during the monsoon.

THE best warning signals are only as good as the next accident they are designed to prevent, as the tragedy involving the Mumbai-bound Matsyagandha Express on the Konkan Railway on June 16 showed. Boulders on the track near a bridge between Karanjawadi and Veer stations, about 200 km from Mumbai, took the engine driver by surprise and the impact sent the engine and four coaches hurtling down some 20 metres into the ravine, killing 16 passengers and injuring almost 100.

According to the Konkan Railway's Managing Director B. Rajaram, the boulders had probably rolled on to the track a few minutes before the accident, which happened at around 6 a.m. Of the four coaches that fell off the bridge, two were general coaches, which usually overflow with passengers. Six other coaches lay scattered between the bridge and the rock cuttings. Rajaram suggested that boulders on the hillside adjacent to the track got dislodged from the soil loosened by incessant rain and rolled on to the track. The Konkan Railway, built on the Western Ghats, is subjected to the fury of the southwest monsoon from June to August and, in spite of precautions such as boulder-warning signals, the risks are high.

There was apparently no warning signal on the section of the track where the accident happened. It ran through a five-metre cutting and was thought to be not prone to landslips. Over the past year, the Konkan Railway has spent around Rs.60 crores on safety works, said its spokesperson Vaishali Patange. On June 22 last year, the Karwar-Mumbai holiday special derailed near Ratnagiri after hitting a boulder on the track in heavy rain at around 10 p.m., killing 51 passengers and injuring nearly 60. Since then the Konkan Railway has put in place special safety and precautionary measures, including specially fabricated high-strength steel nets strung along 10-metre high cuttings.

The emphasis was on activating the system, through warning signals, against possible natural calamities so that it could take automatic action, said Patange. Along with the medium- and high-strength boulder nets spread over 4.3 lakh sq km, the Konkan Railway also installed 2,000 indigenously developed "inclinometers", which can detect soil movement in cuttings along the slopes. Another 18,000 inclinometers would soon be installed. Once an inclinometer detects activity, it activates "Raksha Dhaga" boxes on the towers nearby, which in turn send signals to the approaching train. The Raksha Dhaga warns approaching trains with flashing lights and hooters in a range of 500 metres from the area where soil movement was detected, so that the driver has enough time to stop the train.

"We tried our best to take all necessary precautions before the monsoon," said Rajaram. The derailment was an example of "nature humbling man", he told mediapersons on the day of the accident. He said steel nets would be put even on five-metre cuttings to ensure safety against such landslips.

Railway Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav announced at the accident spot on the day of the tragedy that a pilot engine would be run before every passenger train on vulnerable sections to provide clearance against landslides. In fact, pilot trains were run routinely on the route soon after it was commissioned, but the practice was discontinued subsequently. Railway officials said the speed of trains on the Konkan Railway would be reduced to 70 km an hour as against the normal speed of 100 km an hour. According to officials, the tracks were built with technology that would allow trains to run at a speed of 150 km an hour.

THE 760-km Konkan Railway, from Mangalore to Mumbai, was commissioned on January 26, 1998, eight years after construction work began. The entire project involved building 179 major bridges, 1,819 minor bridges and 92 tunnels and earthwork to the extent of 89 million cubic metres in cuttings and embankments.

At the accident site.-

The project did not have a smooth start. Even when the area was being surveyed in the late 1980s, environmentalists raised the issue of damage the railway line would cause. They also pointed out that the south Konkan part of the Western Ghats was dominated by laterite rock and soil, which was soft and very porous and absorbed water easily, and warned of the possibility of landslides during the monsoon.

Questions were also raised about the "surveys" that were conducted, and the ecology expert Madhav Gadgil even distanced himself from the positive environment impact assessment report. Yet, the Konkan Railway not only went ahead with the project, but completed it in record time. "It should have taken at least 10 years to complete," said a former Konkan Railway official. He said the Konkan Railway Corporation should have given more importance to surveying the region and spent more time on it before beginning construction.

"Cutting into the hills have to be done in a certain way. You have to take into account the fact that roots stabilise the soil. Which is why it is necessary to inspect the entire track and stabilise the surroundings wherever necessary. Sensors can only do so much," he said.

But the Konkan Railway seemed intent on completing the project quickly. "In fact it even sought relaxation in the foreign exchange rules to import equipment that would enable it to complete the project soon," said the former official.

Despite all the controversy, the railway line is a dream come true for the people of the region. It has made travel and transportation of goods to Mumbai easy, especially so for the people of Goa, who had just two broad gauge stations in the State.

The route itself is picturesque, with the Sahyadri hills on the east and the Arabian Sea on the west. But there are times when nature humbles man despite the best of precautions.

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