"Physical catastrophes have their inevitable and exclusive origin in certain combinations of physical facts," so said Rabindranath Tagore. His truism aptly applies to rail accidents in India.
A range of factors like human error, antiquated communication and safety equipment, signalling systems, ageing bridges and tracks, increase in passenger and freight traffic and sometimes natural calamities have led to rail accidents in India to date.
Surge in Traffic
* Special training; breathalyser tests and random checks for staff to curb alcoholism and check their alertness.
* Electronic track signalling and telecom systems in all sectors.
* Replacement of all age-old assets like tracks and bridges.
* Set up a Safety Board on lines of National Transportation Safety Board of the US.
* Implement recommendations of the Railway Safety panel for -
-- Introduction of driver vigilance control devices and auxiliary warning systems.
-- Ultrasonic inspections to detect track weld flaws.
A big surge in traffic with slow modernisation is making our rail network increasingly vulnerable, say experts.
"Freight traffic volume has risen by 620% and passenger traffic by 514% since 1951 while input into increasing capacity has grown by only 200%," says MK Mishra, a former member of the Indian railway board.
Increase in the traffic density reduces the railway staff's reaction time of railway staff and increases their stress," says CM Khosla, another former member of the board.
Human Error and Alcoholism
As per the statutory enquiries, failure of the railway staff cause most of the mishaps.
In its 1997-98 report to Indian Parliament, the Commission of Railway Safety said 83% of all major train accidents were due to "human failure."
A railway ministry survey says that alcoholism among field staff was found to be a major cause for rail accidents. It has suggested breathalyser tests and random checks of all field staff.
Lack of Modern Signalling Equipmen
1995 probe: Interesting facts
400 people were killed and 120 hurt when Puroshottam Express, at 110 km/hr speed, ploughed into a stationary Kalindi Express near Firozabad station in UP. Kalindi Express had stopped after hitting a cow on tracks.
Collision Cause: Wrong signal to Purushottam Express.
Firozabad's western signal room was found to be a small 2-storey structure equipped with crank-up phones, an old telegraph system and a pack of 28 1-m-high levers needed to be manually operated to control the signal lights.
According to Mishra about 90% of the accidents occur due to derailments. He said electronic circuits cover only 20 to 30% of the national network and the country badly needs a comprehensive electronic track signalling system covering all major railway sectors.
On August 1, 1999, Brahmputra Mail from Guwahati hit a stationary Awadh-Assam Express head-on at Gaisal station in West Bengal killing over 400 people. Cause: Signal failure.
British-period Railway Bridges
India has over 100,000 railway bridges, a lot of them ageing and accident-prone. About half of them were built during the Raj. Some of them are over 100 years old.
In its 1999 report, the Railway Safety Review Committee had identified nearly 300 bridges as "very weak and distressed" and in urgent need of replacement. Action on the report is still awaited.
In 1989, the Bridges Rehabilitation Committee had dubbed the Kadalundi bridge a death trap and recommended to abandon it. And in 2001, fifty-two people perished when Mangalore-Madras Mail tumbled into the river after the over 100-years-old bridge finally collapsed.
Old, poorly managed Railway Tracks
In 1999, it was estimated that 6,000 kilometres of railway tracks were in "bad shape" and in urgent need of replacement. The estimate came from the railways ministry. Till date, no remedial action has been initiated.
Freak Natural Phenomena
Sometimes, even bizarre theories come up for the accidents. When the Trivandrum-bound Island Express from Bangalore plunged into the Quilon river in 1989, killing 107 people, the probe concluded that the accident was due to a 'freak typhoon' that occurred in the split-seconds that the train crossed the river bridge.
In 1968 the Railway Board in response to the Railway Accidents Inquiry Committee set a target of 0.36 as the number of collisions per MTK. But the figure remains for the books.
The Commission of Railway Safety has recommended scores of measures to improve safety situation of Indian Railways but most of them have been overlooked.