Kanchanjunga Express accident: Critical safety and tech issues that need to be addressed - Hindustan Times
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Kanchanjunga Express accident: Critical safety and tech issues that need to be addressed

Jun 20, 2024 08:41 AM IST

Over the past few years, the Railways seems to be focusing more on visible events, which may show that it is on the path of modernisation.

The recent accident of a freight train rear-ending the Kanchanjunga Express and the consequent fatalities have brought to light — once again — the vulnerability to unsafe events in the Indian Railways (IR). While IR is in the mode to run more and more trains and expand the network, the emphasis on safety (and other customer-facing attributes like cleanliness and hygiene, punctuality, and convenience) needs greater attention. Let us examine the various issues that this accident, and in fact a series of accidents/malfunctions and possibly many more near misses of the recent past bring out.

A cargo train rammed into Kanchanjunga Express near New Jalpaiguri station in West Bengal on Monday. (AP)(HT_PRINT) PREMIUM
A cargo train rammed into Kanchanjunga Express near New Jalpaiguri station in West Bengal on Monday. (AP)(HT_PRINT)

1. Signal and equipment failures: Signal failure is a key issue that set the context for the Kanchanjunga Express accident. IR needs to examine why all signal failures have to occur. What is required in terms of both maintenance and technology upgradation? So also, the issue of failures in track and rolling stock. Another recent accident was when the wheel of a locomotive simply broke.

2. Operations and maintenance protocols consequent to a (signal-based) disruption: While IR is known for its manuals and procedures, it appears that these are not keeping pace with newer technologies, or the training to observe the protocols is not up to standard. In the context of the recent accident, it is frightening that we have received different viewpoints from key functionaries. The first response was that the freight train loco pilot passed the signal at danger. Subsequently, there was a view that given the signal failure, the loco pilot was allowed to pass signals at danger, with a paper order. This view further said that he would have to stop at every red signal and then proceed at a low speed, while he was actually at a much higher speed causing a serious accident. Another view was that the paper order indicated that the track was clear until the next station so he could go at a higher speed. We hope that the inquiry to be conducted by the Commissioner of Railway Safety will throw a better light on this. However, it seems that the issue of differing protocols needs to be resolved. This issue also takes us back to the horrific railway accident at Bahanaga Bazar in Odisha in June 2023.

3. Urgency of top management to provide conclusions: This has been very disturbing, especially with fingers being pointed at the loco pilot, who unfortunately is no more with us to defend himself. However, the assistant loco pilot is alive though injured. Hopefully, he will be in a position to throw some light on what actually happened.

More importantly, unnecessary narratives are created when they are not required. One can wait until the picture is clearer with more information.

A loco pilot was once blamed for an accident because he was busy on his mobile phone. This theory was dismissed and retracted following an inquiry into the accident. This hurry to apportion blame is partly because of pressure from the media, which wants quick stories – and even quicker resolution — related to big events. Political opposition adds to the pressure. Top management needs to dig their feet in with conviction and say things after investigation while presenting a picture of a quick and appropriate response to the situation.

4. Rescue operations: Access to accident spots can be difficult, and lead to increased human fatalities due to delayed rescue. The railways should invest in helicopter and drone fleets that can land on the tracks with equipment and medical support, to hasten the rescue. Such a fleet should be located at key points across the network, with processes to ensure their continuous upkeep.

5. Analysis of existing information: Data loggers at various signals and stations provide a wealth of data on train movements. There could be similar opportunities for tracking related data. These can be analysed in an intelligent manner (using Artificial Intelligence (AI)), especially the many minor and ‘near-miss’ accidents for possible causes and solutions.

6. Recruitment: With greater automation, it is not unexpected that the total staff strength of IR should go down. However, critical positions which have vacancies in operations, maintenance and safety cannot be compromised.

7. New roles: There would be situations, especially where data analytics and AI can play a role in providing solutions. These would need the creation of new roles, including for technology identification, development, and adoption and similarly for systems identification, development, and adoption.

8. Training: Safety is such a function that periodic training, even if repetitive, should be undergone by key functionaries so that a sense of alertness and freshness is brought to the role. Of course, the key functionaries should learn new technologies and systems.

9. Kavach and similar technologies: This is a technology whose need in the IR has been established for many years. This accident would most likely not have occurred had the Kavach technology been deployed on the route. The deployment of this technology must be given a high priority in all the high-density routes of the IR network. It is not clear why this has not happened even though it has been under discussion for more than a decade.

Each time there is likely a delay in the procurement, a new upgrade is on the horizon - This could become a never-ending cycle. It is important to understand that upgradation will have to happen over a period of time. In this context, research-based indigenous development of such, and similar signal and control-related technologies must be given a high priority.

10. Emphasis on projects and visible events rather than routine: Over the past few years, the railways seems to be focusing more on projects and visible events, which may demonstrate that IR is on the path of modernisation and increasing market share. However, the traditional strength and culture of good processes towards ‘routine’ should not be compromised. It appears that the middle management of IR is being pushed more towards facilitating projects and events rather than ensuring good operations, maintenance, safety and increased customer service.

G Raghuram is advisor, Infravision Foundation and professor emeritus, Gujarat Maritime University and Chanakya University. The views expressed are personal

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