The spine-chilling deaths of nine passengers in a fire accident in the Bandra-Dehradun Express have evoked predictable responses from the railway establishment. Officials promised to “investigate the case and review passenger safety arrangements thoroughly”.
The quality of “fire-retardant material” including curtain and linen used in air-conditioned coaches will be re-evaluated. Compensation packages have been announced. Meetings upon high level meetings are scheduled. In short, it’s business as usual.
The railways management can be accused of much else, but not for shortage of ideas. Every concept for preventing incidents of train fire has been discussed in the Railway Board. MoUs have been signed with the railways of western nations for the study of behavior of fire material under various conditions. A fire test laboratory has been established at the Lucknow-based Research Design and Standards Organisation (RDSO).
Cerebral research work has been done on ways to prevent the “toxicity index” from rising in case of fire accidents. Smoke sensors have been tried out in premier trains. Officials like to stress that the expenditure on passenger safety has risen from Rs. 30,162 crore in 2009-10 to Rs. 36,541 crore in 2012-13.
These grand initiatives have not helped prevent burn deaths in trains. From zero percent fire deaths in 2009 and 2010, the number of such deaths jumped to 30% of all train deaths in 2012 and 26% in 2013, official figures show. “Problems are that policy makers start looking around for high-tech solutions instead of focusing on basic issues,” an official said.
Ostensibly, some low-cost but effective solutions are possible. For instance, curtains used in air-conditioned coaches can be replaced by pure wool. Instead of placing the fire extinguisher near the toilets, these can be placed in each passenger bay. Pressurised water sprinklers, operable from any location in the coach, can be installed.
The door leading to the coach corridor can be made to open outwards, so as to prevent blockage that can be caused by the piling up of bodies near the door entrance in the case of a fire.
The “departmentalism” of the railways has also prevented lasting solutions from being put in place. After every fire, the mechanical directorate -- responsible for interior furnishing in coaches -- blames the electrical directorate, which is responsible for electrical fittings, and vice versa.
The nonchalant attitude to passenger deaths largely seems to accrue from the fact that the railways triple up in the roles of an administrator, regulator and operator. While being a business head, the chairman of the Railway Board also enjoys immunity from punitive action by virtue of being the principal secretary to the union government.
Unlike the Motor Vehicles Tribunal, the office of the Chief Commissioner of Railway Safety (CCRS) does not have a quasi-judicial status. The railways can accept or reject the recommendations of the CCRS.
The railways have also remained reluctant to implement the recommendations of the Anil Kakodkar committee on setting up a Safety Regulatory Authority. “We do not feel it is a practical idea,” chairman of the Railway Board Arunendra Kumar said.