After last Friday’s horrendous triple train collision in Odisha in which more than 280 were killed, few would believe that the Indian Railways had actually brought down accidents steeply between 1970-71 and 2021.

A paper presented by two railway officials at the Fifth World Congress on Disaster Management, says that accidents decreased from 840 in 1970-71  to 22 in 2020-21. Over the last few years, the Railways had fitted equipment and adopted measures to tone up the safety system. There has been a significant jump in the allocation of funds also.

The Crash

In the Balasore crash, the Coromandel Express, instead of going straight, headed to the loop line due to some issue with the signalling system and hit a goods train parked there.  As the Coromandel Express crashed into the goods train, some coaches of the Express were thrown off onto the upline where the Bengaluru-Howrah Superfast Express was running. This resulted in an unusual triple-train crash.

The installed signal system had been designed to prevent accidents of this sort. It is taken to be a foolproof system. Hence, the Railway Board suspected sabotage and sought an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). A 10-member CBI team has begun investigations on the spot.

Apparently, the lack of equipment or failure of equipment is not suspected. This absolves the railways of any charge of not installing the right equipment.

Safety Record Has Been Improving  

The paper on rail safety mentioned earlier, was presented at the Fifth World Congress on Disaster Management by officials Bhupinder Singla and Samarth Singh. It was published by Routledge (Taylor and Francis group) in 2023.

The paper says that especially after the implementation of the recommendations of the Disaster Management Committee in 2008, accidents had come down dramatically.

In the 40-year period between 1980 and 2020, there had been 15,963 accidents in total. Between 1980 and 2001-2002, there were, on average, 595 accidents per year. But between 2002 and 2020, the annual rate of accidents had come down to 152.

There were four major types of accidents: derailment, accidents at level crossings, collisions, and fires. Derailments were the single largest category, followed by accidents at level crossings, collisions, and fire, in that order.

Derailment: There were 12,105 derailments between 1980 and 2020. There was an average of 475 derailments per year till 2001-02.  Subsequently, they came down to 87 per year.

Accidents at Level Crossings: Between 1980 and 2001-02 there were 67 yearly accidents at level crossings. Subsequently, they came down to 52 per year.

Collisions: Between 1980 and  2001-2002, there were 39 collisions per year. Subsequently, they came down to 7 per year.

Fires: There were 31 cases of fire per year between 1980 and 2001-02. In later years the rate came down to six per year.

Safety Measures  

The Indian government passed the Disaster Management Act in 2005 and the  Railways were represented by the National Disaster Management Authority. Periodically, the top echelons of the Railways would communicate with the zonal railways on the safety requirements and do follow-ups.

More specifically, some concrete steps were taken. These were: 1. Extensive use of anti-collision devices 2. Replacement of over-aged tracks, bridges, signals, telecommunication gears and rolling stock; 3.Manning of unmanned level crossings; 4. Using Train Actuated Warning Devices and ACD to reduce level crossing accidents. 5. Introduction of modern bridge inspection and management systems; 6. It was filling up of safety category posts.

A syndicated story appearing in Telegraph India said on Monday, that expenditure on safety-related works, which include track renewal, bridges, level crossing, railway over and under bridges and signalling works, had increased from INR  70,274 crores (US$ 8.3 billion) between 2004-05 and 2013-14, to INR 178,012 crore (US$ 21.4 billion) in the period between 2014-15 and 2023-24,  reflecting an increase of more than two and a half times.

But still, disasters of high magnitude have occurred. According to New York Times, in 2016, 14 bogies derailed in India’s northeast killing more than 140 passengers and injuring 200. Officials at the time said a “fracture” in the tracks might have been responsible. In 2017, a derailment in southern India killed at least 36 passengers and injured 40.

However, last Friday’s crash in Odisha was the deadliest at least since the collision in 1995 about 125 miles from Delhi that killed more than 350 people.

Critics of the Narendra Modi government say that it had recklessly opted for speed over safety neglecting maintenance.

In the meanwhile, the Railway Board called for an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to examine if there was sabotage.

Humongous Task

Running the Indian railways is a humongous task. It is the fourth largest national railway system in the world by size, with a total route length of 68,043 km,  a running track length of 102,831 km and a track length of 128,305 km as of 31 March 2022.

Prior to the pandemic, the Indian railways ran 22, 593 trains every day of which 13,452 were passenger trains. It also hauled 3.32 million tonnes of cargo every day.