Lesson from demonetisation: Why can’t we improve the railways overnight?

While the Prime Minister had promised to upgrade the transport system and introduce sophisticated bullet trains, the conditions of our existing railway system is abysmal to say the least.

Written by Radhika Iyengar | New Delhi | Published:November 21, 2016 7:37 pm
 indore patna express, indore patna express derails, patna train derails, Indore train derails, kanpur train accident, train accident today, indian railways, patna indore train accident, train accident, train derailed, train accident deaths, train accident death toll, kanpur train accident death toll, kanpur train accident deaths, kanpur indore train accident deaths, PAtna Indore express, Kanpur, Kanpur train, Kanpur train accident, Kanpur derailed train, Kanpur train derail, Kanpur news, India news A policeman stands at the site of Sunday’s train derailment in Pukhrayan, south of Kanpur city. REUTERS Photo

Unfortunately, the Indore Patna Express railway tragedy is no anomaly. Fatal train accidents are common in India. In 2014-15, there were 131 railway accidents, which left 168 people dead. The year prior to that witnessed 117 train accidents within the country with 103 deaths. While the Prime Minister had promised to upgrade the transport system and introduce sophisticated bullet trains, the conditions of our existing railway system is abysmal to say the least.

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There were two reasons for the colossal loss of lives. One, the accident occurred due to the fracturing of the rails. Fracturing of railway tracks occur when there are significant changes in the temperature – tracks expand in the summer and contract during the winters. This phenomenon of expansion and contraction lead to the development of cracks. And these cracks intensify due to constant and intensive pressure put on them by the overriding coaches. If they are not maintained and checked in time, that could lead to derailment, which was the case for the Indore Patna Express train.

The other reason was that the Indore Patna Express carried ICF coaches (i.e. Integral Coach Factory coaches), that has a design which potentially holds an internal flaw. They are only meant to travel at a speed of 80-90 kilometers per hour, and are characteristically known to pile up on top of each other in case an accident occurs. So is there an alternative, better coach available in the country? The answer is yes. The LHB coaches (Linke Hoffman Busch) have been designed to operate at a speed of 160 kilometers per hour, which can go up to 200 kilometers per hour. These coaches are found in superior trains like the Rajdhanis, Shatabdis, Gatimaan Express and Duronto Express.

Unfortunately, the Indian railway department has been unable to replace all the ICF coaches with LHB coaches – primarily because ICF coaches are — (a) more in number and therefore, in circulation (there are presently 55,000 working ICF coaches as opposed to 5,000-8,000 LHB coaches) ; (b) There is a fierce lobbying in place within the country by those who wish to control and continue the circulation of outdated ICF coaches.

The present situation is grim, since this mishap could be avoided had a stringent system been in place that demanded and ensured a quick, systematic replacement of all the ICF coaches. The Railway Ministry argues that the number of LHB coaches that currently exist are few in number and cannot replace older coaches overnight. This might be a crude analogy, but picture this: if demonetisation was done overnight – a decision which was a necessary and pragmatic, albeit almost paralyzing, taken by the government for the “sake” of the nation – the scaling up of production of LHB coaches could have been given an unrivaled priority as well. Forget about building bullet trains that run from Ahmedabad to Mumbai, focus on fixing what is in place first, because at the end of the day, lives have been lost and such accidents will continue to occur if the coaches are not replaced in time.