• Monday, May 20, 2024


Lessons from train disasters in India

Country should get UK’s help in upgrading signalling network

Heavy machinery removes damaged coaches from the railway tracks at the site of a train collision following the accident in Balasore district in the eastern state of Odisha, India, June 4, 2023. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

By: Amit Roy

There are no words adequate to reflect the horror of last week’s train disaster in India, in which nearly 300 people were killed and 1,200 injured.

The crash in Odisha involving the Bengaluru- Howrah Superfast Express and the Shalimar- Chennai Central Coromandel Express and a goods train occurred around 7pm last Friday (2) near the Bahanaga Bazar station in Balasore, about 250 km south of Kolkata and 170 km north of Bhubaneswar.

Many of the victims were migrant workers, making it difficult to identify the victims. It also proved difficult to find enough morgue space to store the bodies.

It is obvious there was a signalling problem at least with one train ploughing into a stationary goods train. Perhaps an oncoming third train could not be stopped from hitting compartments that were sprawled across the track.

Since the British had built the railways in India, perhaps they can help in upgrading the country’s signalling network and making other essential technological improvements. God knows India needs help and should not be too proud to turn to the British.

On learning of the appalling loss of life in Odisha, I immediately consulted the Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB), which is the independent railway accident investigation organisation for the UK.

The purpose of a RAIB investigation is to “improve the safety of railways, and to prevent further accidents from occurring.

“The RAIB achieves this by identifying the causes of accidents along with any other factors that contributed to the event or made the outcome worse, such as technical or operational factors or those arising from management systems.

“The RAIB’s investigations are entirely independent and are focused solely on safety improvement. The RAIB does not apportion blame or liability nor enforce law or carry out prosecutions.”

Its threshold for getting involved is low – at least compared with India.

I was told that “the RAIB must by law investigate all rail accidents involving a derailment or collision which result in, or could result in: the death of at least one person; serious injury to  five or more people; or extensive damage to rolling stock, the infrastructure or the environment.

“The RAIB may also investigate other incidents which have implications for railway safety, including those which under slightly different circumstances may have led to an accident.”

In India, prime minister Narendra Modi has warned that those found responsible for causing the crash will be severely punished. But the reality is the country’s signalling system badly needs to be upgraded – and trained people put in charge of operating the equipment.

Accidents can happen in any country, but they occur far too frequently in India. Over the past 10 years, here is a random sample of  “accidents” that have happened in India:


August 19, 2013: The Dhamara Ghat train accident occurred when the 12567 Saharsa–Patna Rajya Rani Superfast Express ran over passengers disembarking from another train at the Dhamara station in Bihar, killing 35.

November 2, 2013: The 13352 Alappuzha– Dhanbad Express ran over passengers of the 57271 Vijayawada–Rayagada passenger train who had jumped onto the adjacent track due to a rumour that their train was on fire. Ten people were killed and at least 20 injured.

December 28, 2013: The 16594 Bangalore City–Hazur Sahib Nanded Express caught fire near Kothacheruvu in Andhra Pradesh, killing at least 26 and injuring 12.

May 4, 2014: The 50105 Diva Junction-Sawantvadi Passenger train derailed between Nagothane and Roha stations, killing about 20 and injuring 100.

May 26, 2014: The 12556 Gorakhdham Express collided with a stationary freight train near Khalilabad station in Uttar Pradesh, killing at least 25 and injuring over 50.

July 23, 2014: Medak district bus-train collision. A Nanded-Secunderabad passenger train collided with a school bus at an unmanned level-crossing in Masaipet village of Medak district, killing 20.

March 20, 2015: The 2015 Uttar Pradesh train accident occurred when the Dehradun Varanasi Janta Express derailed in Rae Bareli, Uttar Pradesh, killing 58 and injuring 150.

August 4, 2015: The Harda twin train derailment occurred when the Kamayani Express and Janata Express derailed between Kurawan and Bhiringi stations in Madhya Pradesh, killing at least 31 people and injuring 100. Flash floods caused by Cyclonic Storm Komen dislodged a culvert causing a track misalignment, and several carriages of the 11071 Kamayani Express fell into the Machak river.

November 20, 2016: The Pukhrayan train derailment occurred when the 19321 Indore Rajendra Nagar Express derailed 14 coaches at Pukhrayan, approximately 60 km (37 mi) from Kanpur, killing 152 and injuring 260.

January 21, 2017: The Kuneru train disaster occurred when the 18448 Jagdalpur Bhubaneswar Hirakhand Express derailed near Kuneru, Vizianagaram, killing 41 and injuring 69.

August 19, 2017: The 18478 Puri–Haridwar Kalinga Utkal Express derailed in Khatauli near Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, killing at least 23 and leaving around 97 injured.

October 19, 2018: Amritsar train disaster. About 59 people were killed and about 100 injured when a train ran into a crowd of spectators who were standing on the tracks watching the Dusshera festival in Amritsar.

May 8, 2020: In the Aurangabad railway acciden, 16 migrant workers sleeping on rail tracks were killed when a goods train ran over them between Jalna and Aurangabad districts.

The reality is disasters happen so frequently that the railway authorities, successive governments, the public at large and the media have learnt to tolerate them as part of the operating cost of running India’s extensive network. My guess is that Odisha will disappear from the front pages and from public consciousness in a week.

On British TV, we have become used to seeing presenters such as the former defence minister Michael Portillo talk nostalgically of the rail network the Raj bequeathed to India. Such feel-good programmes are not spoilt by talking about safety. India should turn to the UK’s RAIB – and appeal for much-needed help.

Incidentally, how often do we stand on a platform and hear that the train we are waiting for when we are in a hurry to get to an appointment “has been cancelled due to a signalling problem”?

Now, I think it’s better to have a train cancelled than risk a disaster.

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