Hirakhand Express tragedy: Sabotage or not, Indian Railways could've avoided this mishap

On 1 January, fish plates and elastic clips were found to be removed on a railway track near Kanpur, on the Farrukhabad Kanpur section. Gangmen detected the fish plates and clips and averted a potential accident. Alert Gangmen averted a possible tragedy. The CBI was promptly asked to probe a potential sabotage angle.

Close to 50 percent (approximately 45 percent) of the accidents on Indian Railways, since this decade began, are due to derailments. The other category that comes close (to around 40 percent) to this is that of level crossing accidents – unmanned rail road crossings. The two together account for over 85 percent of the categories of the accidents in Indian Railways.

 Hirakhand Express tragedy: Sabotage or not, Indian Railways couldve avoided this mishap

Over 30 people died in the Hirakhand Express tragedy. PTI

If we turn our attention to the causes of these accidents, sabotage has turned out to be the cause of 2 percent of accidents in the past. However, about 45 percent of the accidents were supposed to have taken place due to some form of human failure. In the case of most derailments, rail fractures or cracks, other than missing fish plates or rail clips, are supposed to be the most common form of accidents.

While there has been a lot of hue and cry over the slow replacement of most ICF coaches with LHB coaches, all the LHB coaches do is to reduce the risk of accidents by being safer at higher speeds greater than 90 kmph. Also, they do not capsize into each other because of strong anti-climbing features, that does not mean that they are not going to be accidents, it only means there will be lesser casualties.

The fundamental issues remain the lack of sufficient safety audits, the manpower (gangmen) required to carry out the same, and also enough safeguarding of the tracks to prevent sabotage.

The safety and reliability of the rail operation depend on three factors:

1) Basic Hygiene: Do we have enough manpower (Gangmen, Keymen, mates etc) to take care of the Rail lines?

2) Best Practices: Regular safety audits, speed restrictions in sensitive zones

3) Barriers to Breaches: Elimination of unmanned crossings and fencing of tracks

In the case of the recent accident of Hirakhand Express, it is reported that the driver heard a loud cracker like sound just before the accident which means that this could have in all probability been a cracked rail, which means a patrol party of gangmen could have covered this as a part of their audit. Extreme temperature variations often accentuate existing cracks. In terms of best practices even a monitoring of the track conditions with respect to temperate would help. Speed restrictions could be placed in sensitive zones. All these need to be a part of best practices.

If sabotage is indeed turning out to be potential cause of accidents, then modernisation is perhaps the only way out. If fencing is required to speed up trains and prevent accidents with bovine creatures, it is all the more necessary to prevent miscreants from making their way to the railway tracks and removing fish plates and elastic clips, that may cause derailments, which are about 45 percent of our accidents. But it comes with a cost, it could be as high as 0.4Cr per km or lower. Similarly, unmanned level crossings need to be then replaced with grade separators to minimize a human track interface.

Suresh Prabhu has turned out to be the most social media-savvy railway minister we have ever had. However, the current spate of accidents call for a far deeper remedy than just getting the books in the black. It goes far beyond nuances of accounting to touching the core of operations. Issues pertaining to safety and modernisation are now completely intertwined. A comprehensive roadmap for both will bring about the long term solution to the current spate of accidents. And IR’s modernised railway stations need to start churning money fast to pump in such a comprehensive plan.

(The author, Jai Mrug, is the CEO of M76 Analytics, a SINE IIT Bombay Company.)

Updated Date: Jan 22, 2017 14:26:01 IST