There is always a sense of déjà vu surrounding train accidents in India that occur with depressing regularity, followed by ritualistic announcements of compensation and inquiry. The death toll is reduced to cold statistics and then it becomes business as usual. The weekend tragedy on tracks, involving Jagdalpur-Bhubaneswar Hirakhand Express in Vizianagaram district bordering Odisha, has claimed 41 lives. The derailment comes on the heels of a major accident involving Indore-Patna Express near Kanpur in November last year resulting in the death of 146 passengers. In the latest mishap, officials have not ruled out involvement of Maoists as the Andhra-Odisha border area is considered their stronghold. The NIA is already probing the alleged role of Pakistan’s ISI behind the Kanpur derailment and also made some arrests. The sabotage angle marks a new dimension of the subversion carried out by ISI and has exposed the vulnerability of railways to terrorist strikes. Being the fourth largest network in the world, Indian railways carry nearly 23 million passengers a day over more than 64,000 km of track. During the period 2009-14, there were 803 railway accidents killing 620 people. Many of these accidents could have been averted had the Railways paid enough attention to upgrading its infrastructure such as tracks and signalling and inducting technologies that help prevent accidents. Derailments account for more than half of the rail mishaps, with civil engineering defects being the main culprit. Tracks are often old, overused and maintenance of infrastructure is shoddy.
The Anil Kakodkar committee, set up in 2011 to review rail safety, painted a grim picture of performance and recommended upgrading track, repairing bridges, eliminating level crossings and replacing old coaches with safer ones. These measures would cost Rs 1 lakh crore over a period of five years to improve safety and overhaul railway infrastructure, ranging from aged tracks to erratic signalling systems. It recommended switch over from coaches designed by the Integral Coach Factory to Linke Hofmann Busch (LHB) coaches, considered safer. However, four years after the report, the LHB coaches constitute a mere 10 per cent of the bogies in use. The Railways is yet to introduce safety technologies like Train Protection and Warning System, Train Collision Avoidance System and automatic fire and smoke detection system. Safety often takes a back seat to other priorities of populist nature. Even funds collected specifically for augmenting safety remain unspent. There is a need for setting up railway safety authority independent of the Railway Board. The Railways must radically rethink its approach to reduce accidents and also to beef up its infrastructure. The accident inquiry reports should be put in the public domain to enable proper assessment of the past mistakes.