The government has started taking the Indian Railways on the path to some much needed modernisation. However, the accident today has underlined the fact that it needs to improve the safety record of the Indian Railways first. It is a matter of great pride that India is thinking of adopting new technologies like bullet trains, but they might seem out of place when accidents — mostly caused by human error — kill hundreds every year. If this is the safety record of our regular trains, most of which fail to cross 70 kmph for most of their run, then we have to think if much faster bullet trains are really what we should be looking at.
Railways Minister Suresh Prabhu has been one of the most proactive in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Cabinet and has introduced several reforms to improve the travel experience of commuters. But, we can hope he is giving as much priority to safety as he would to revenue generation.
Indian Railways in 2015 suffered seven major collisions and derailments which killed 65 people. In 2016, India witnessed the worst railway accident in the world when the Indore-Patna express derailed killing 150 people and injuring 260 others. The year was one of the worst for Indian Railways in terms of safety with at least five other more major accidents taking place where many more people were injured. The only incident that came close to India’s accidents this year was the derailment of Cameroon’s Camrail inter-city passenger train that killed 55 people and injured another 575.
According to Factly, during 2009-10 to 2014-15, the total number of train accidents in Indian Railways was 803 in which 620 people were killed and another 1,855 injured. Out of all the incidents, a massive 327 accidents or 40.7 per cent of the total incidents were caused because of error of the railway staff. Similarly, 367 accidents accounting for 45.7 per cent of the incidents were caused by human failure of non-railway staff. Equipment failure was only responsible for 18 incidents while sabotage was the cause behind 44.
The kind of incidents is also important to note. Out of the 803, accidents, 373 (46.5 per cent) were derailments, 349 (43.5 per cent) were level crossing accidents and 38 (4.7 per cent) were collisions among other causes. From 2009-10 to 2013-14 there was a drop in train accidents per million km by 40 per cent. But, it increased again in 2014-15.
A huge amount of money is being spent on getting new trains, super-fast trains, digitising ticket booking and many more reforms. However, after studying these accidents and their causes, it is clear that one of the major areas where the government needs to work is in training the existing Railways staff to minimise failures, closing-off tracks as much as possible to minimise non-staff individuals’ caused accidents. Also, maintenance of tracks and trains should also be kept at top priority.
No doubt, it is a daunting task to manage the Indian Railways. It is the third largest network in the world after the US and China. Indian Railways stretches across at least 1,15,000 km behind US’ 293,000 km Railways network and China’s 191,000 km Railways network. It does not mean they aren’t touched with such worries.
According to the US Federal Railroad Administration Office of Safety Analysis official data, From January to September this year alone, there were a total of 8,014 accidents/incidents reported on their network out of which accidents accounted for 1,139 incidents. There were also 814 derailments in the nine-month period. Total fatalities stood at 642–a 22.5 per cent increase since 2013-14. The number of fatalities due to Railways accidents/incidents has consistently stayed above 500 every year since 2013 in the US.
When it comes to China, despite having a highly guarded and advanced super fast train network, it suffered a major accident of its super fast train in 2011 that killed hundreds. After this accident, the Chinese government was accused of a cover-up of the mishap and since the reportage of such issues seems to have blocked in some way. Many observers have alleged that accidents in Chinese Railway networks are not reported properly or not put out in public domain. So attaining proper statistics of Chinese Railways safety incidents is difficult.