What caused Odisha train disaster? Hint of human error, criminal delays by Railways
The death toll in the Odisha train disaster is now approaching 300. From the preliminary information about the gory train accident that took place near Balasore, Odisha, on June 2, the following picture emerges: A goods train had been parked on a loop line of Platform No. 1. The Shalimar-Coromandel Express coming from Howrah was running along the main line, which is the “up line”. Strangely, this train also entered the loop line and rammed into the parked goods train and its bogies fell on the main line, as well as on the adjacent “down line” parallel to the mainline. The Bengaluru-Howrah Yesvantpur Express, which was coming on the down line, collided with the strewn bogies of the Coromandel Express and its bogies got derailed as well. Some of them got totally smashed.
Giving his initial reaction based on limited available information, a top railway official from Odisha told The Federal: “Once the goods train has been allowed to park on the loop line, the automatic signalling system is not supposed to allow any other train to enter the loop line. But it appears that the Shalimar-Coromandel Express got the green signal instead of red and entered the loop line and collided with the goods train parked on that loop line at 6.58 pm. Why it did not proceed along the main line and why it entered the loop line in the first place is a big mystery.
“It is not yet clear whether the station master wrongly presumed that the goods train had already left and gave the green signal to the Coromandel Express to enter the loop line, or he wrongly assumed that the goods train was parked on the main line and hence allowed Coromandel Express to pass through the loop line to overtake it. It is also possible that the train driver, without seeing the signal, entered the loop line due to lack of alertness.”
Mystery of speed and three crucial minutes
The train’s speed was also a mystery, he added. “From survivors’ accounts, it is clear that the Coromandel Express was traveling at its maximum speed of above 100 km per hour. The impact of the collision — which made the bogies fly a few meters into the air and fall on the adjacent up line nearly 20 feet away — confirms the high speed.
“But the maximum allowed speed on the loop line is only 15 km per hour. Even if the driver had received the green signal to enter the loop line, he should have slowed down to 15 km per hour. Obviously, he did not do that. Whether the lapse is a technical glitch or human negligence is not clear. Actually, it is the responsibility of the station master to give the green signal or to continue with the red signal, depending on the situation. Whether it is a lapse on the part of the station master or the train driver is to be investigated. Only a detailed inquiry by the Railways Safety Commission can establish that.”
The official further pointed out that the Coromandel Express collided with the goods train at 6.58 pm, when its bogies fell on the adjacent line. The Yesvantpur Express ran into these strewn bogies at 7.01 pm. Three minutes were enough to alert its driver to stop the train considering that the first accident happened barely within 200 metres of Bahanaga railway station, near Balasore. The station master could have alerted the Yesvantpur Express driver or switched on the red light and stopped the train. Why it did not happen is an even bigger mystery, said the official.
What went wrong?
So, why did things go so horribly wrong? How can the system be made fool-proof, removing all possibility of human error as far as possible? What can be done to prevent the repeat of such a horrendous accident in which the death toll has crossed 280 at the time of writing this piece and more than 1,000 people are reportedly injured?
A senior railway official in charge of coach maintenance in one of the zones in North India explained to The Federal: “Railways safety depends of the efficiency of four parameters: 1) Traffic control system; 2) Bogie maintenance; 3) Track maintenance; and 4) Track barricading. From whatever initial information we are getting so far, the traffic control system has clearly failed. And there have been recurring lapses and omissions on other counts as well in recent times.
“First, traffic control systems have been established in all divisional headquarters, and from these control rooms, the movement of every train can be monitored on giant screens in real time 24/7. If any train gets involved in any accident, naturally, it will not cross the next signal, and the control room will not get the message that the train has crossed the signal post concerned. In real time, the control room staff can talk to the driver and the guard — who have been given wireless walkie-talkies as well as Jio phones — and find out what happened. If they cannot be contacted, logically, the next immediate thing to do is to halt all the trains running in the vicinity by making all the signals red.
“While it is the control room that clears the running of a train at any point, its instructions are executed by the station master of the nearest station. The station master can also inform the drivers and guards of all running trains in the proximity to halt. Why this did not happen is not clear. Clearly, there was human negligence in the traffic control and signalling systems.”
Gaps and delays
According to this official, the springs in the newly introduced LHB coaches of the railways often break. The resultant jerks sometimes lead to derailment. Track maintenance is also poor because the work is being handed over to private contractors. The quality and strength of human resources are not adequate to ensure safe running the trains. The employees are overworked, increasing the possibility of negligence. Technical glitches also occur because of the inferior quality of the equipment supplied by the private parties. There is no indemnity clause to ensure quality of these equipment.
Dr Kamal, Vice-President of Indian Railways Employees’ Federation (IREF), told The Federal, “Of late, the Railway Ministry has been engaging in heightened discourse on railway safety. But more money has to be allocated by the Finance Ministry, as the Railway Budget is now part of the Union Budget. The railways management started installing the Train Protection and Warning System (TPWS) and the work was supposed to be completed by 2020. Under TPWS, if a train crosses a red signal wrongly for any reason, its brakes automatically get activated and the train comes to halt. The same happens if the train runs above the permitted speed.”
Obviously, TPWS had not been installed on the Coromandel Express. Otherwise, had there been an error on the part of the loco pilot or even the station master, it would have come to a halt. The accident could have been averted.
Lack of Kavach
Commenting on the inordinate delay in installing the TPWS, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report tabled in the parliament on the last day of the monsoon session in September 2020 damned the Railway Ministry for its failure. The report noted, “19 years since its conceptualisation and 12 years from issue of letter of acceptance in the original contract, TPWS (ETCS level I) in the Delhi-Agra section continues to be in trial stage. There was expenditure of Rs 136.53 crore incurred on the Delhi-Agra and Chennai Central-Gummidipundi sections, which remained unfruitful.”
Meanwhile, the railways switched over to an upgraded “Kavach” system—a collision-preventing system—but that is being implemented only on the Delhi-Howrah route and not on the Howrah-Chennai route. Barricading the train tracks has just started. In the latest rail budget, Rs 45,000 crore has been allocated for rail safety. At this rate of allocation, it would take at least five years before Kavach and fencing become a reality, at least on all arterial routes. The result of this negligence has been one of the worst rail accidents in the history of Indian Railways.
Ashwini Vaishnaw is supposed to be one of the few competent ministers in the Union Cabinet. If the Indian Railways displays this kind of callous performance under such a minister, one can only shudder before undertaking train travel!