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India’s irony: Rlys shows improved safety record but scores high in fatalities

The Indian Railways logged just 0.20 mishaps through 2012 in terms of accidents per million train kilometres. This is better than what many developed countries, including Sweden, Belgium, Austria and Finland, can boast of. However, India has the ironic distinction of being on top of the heap when it comes to rail fatalities.

india Updated: Aug 25, 2017 17:00 IST
Srinand Jha
Srinand Jha
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Indian Railways,Train accidents,Collisions
Railway police and local volunteers look for survivors in the upturned coaches of the Kalinga-Utkal Express after an accident near Khatauli in Uttar Pradesh. According to data-journalism website IndiaSpend, 333 people died in train derailments alone in the last three years. (AP File)

Why do so many Indians die in train accidents if the Railways’ safety record is only getting better?

This is the question that crops up every time a train accident is reported in the media. It may be noted that railway minister Suresh Prabhu had recently hinted at quitting after two accidents – including the Kalinga Utkal derailment that claimed 20 lives – occurred within a span of just five days.

The Indian Railways logged just 0.20 mishaps through 2012, in terms of accidents per million train kilometres. This is better than what many developed countries, including Sweden, Belgium, Austria and Finland, can boast of. France and Netherlands scored better, but only marginally.

The figures, as it turns out, conceal more than they reveal. In terms of rail fatalities, India has the ironic distinction of being on the top of the heap. HT found that as many as 3,029 fatalities were reported from India between 1999 and 2009, as compared to 623 deaths witnessed across Canada, America and the United Kingdom in the 10-year period of 2001-11. Japan hasn’t recorded a single passenger’s death in the last 50 years.

Officials ascribe the deaths to the sheer volume of railway traffic – running 19,000 trains across a network of 64,500 km to transport 23 million passengers each day – they are forced to handle. But Canada, which has a railway network that’s only marginally smaller than that of India, reported just four passenger deaths between 2001 and 2011. The United States, which has a network that’s nearly four times larger, witnessed 571 passenger deaths in the same period while the United Kingdom recorded 48.

If anything, the Indian Railways’ record of passenger fatalities has only worsened in recent times. According to data-journalism website IndiaSpend, 333 people died in train derailments alone in the last three years.

“The numbers (accidents per million train kilometre) mean nothing. The Indian Railways are actually in a very bad condition. The rolling stock maintenance is poor; signalling systems are antiquated; modern rail technology has not come in at the required pace,” said Professor NS Vyas, who heads the Technology Mission of the Indian Railways.

His analysis is not off the mark. Technological mechanisms to prevent collisions, such as the train collision avoidance system and anti-collision devices – still remain at the pilot project stage. Ultrasonic flaw detection devices, meant to check track defects, are not available in adequate numbers in the Indian Railways’ inventory. Just 2,000 km of railway tracks are being renewed every year, instead of the required 4,500 km.

“Technology infusion is important, but the bigger need is to restore confidence in the Railways’ operating system. Its desire to increase business by running more and more trains has eaten into the margins of maintenance time in the last few years. The Railways needs to go back to the basics, and start following operating guidelines and manuals stringently,” said former Railway Board member R Jaruhar.

KL Thapar of the Asian institute of Transport said a mindset change was urgently required to ensure rail safety. “Besides that, they need to undertake a series of steps – such as infusion of capital, adoption of new technologies, replacement of aged assets and focus on maintenance and operations – to make things right,” he added

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First Published: Aug 25, 2017 16:16 IST