ON OCTOBER 26, a goods train with 54 coal-laden wagons was moving down a slope in the ghats section of Jharkhand’s Dhanbad division when the brakes failed to work. This immediately set off a complex safety measure. Officials cleared out all other trains from this path, moved the goods train — by then travelling at around 90 kmph — onto a loop line inside a yard at Gurpa in Bihar and effected a derailment.
This was just one incident in a string of failures in the braking system for goods trains, The Indian Express has learnt.
In various memorandums submitted to the Railways, sources said, loco pilots have flagged over 80 cases of goods trains jumping signals over the past one year at least because of an erratic brakes system — the Bogie Mounted Brake System (BMBS).
These red flags come at a time when the Railways is moving to ramp up freight operations. The Dhanbad incident alone led to traffic on the Delhi-Howrah main route being held up for about 24 hours.
In August, a letter sent by the Railways’ design arm, Research, Designs and Standards Organisation (RDSO), to all General Managers cited an internal report of a committee formed to probe the issue, and warned of “a known deficiency” in the BMBS.
Last Friday, an association of Chief Loco Inspectors held a day-long workshop in Delhi to discuss the “braking issue” and “mission zero SPAD” (Signal Passed at Danger). “Around 86 cases of SPAD due to BMBS were reported over the past year up to April 2022,” V K Jain, of the Chief Loco Inspectors’ collective body that conducted the workshop, told The Indian Express.
“Around 90,000 wagons have been fitted with this braking system. Our aim is to figure out how to operate these safely and work out a solution for a safer Indian Railways. That’s why the workshop was conducted,” he said. Loco pilots failing to adhere to a signal or jumping a signal is a grave offence, even leading to dismissal from the job.
When contacted, a top official acknowledged the problem but said the number of SPAD incidents linked to BMBS failure was much lower, and not as claimed by loco pilots.
The BMBS is used only in goods trains, which require significantly more braking power and where the brakes are applied on the wheels of wagons. Passenger trains mainly use disc brakes, where power is applied on discs. But officials pointed out that goods trains take the same path as passenger trains. A goods train with an erratic braking system, running behind or ahead of a passenger train, poses danger to both, they said.
Incidentally, on Monday morning, at least two people were killed after eight wagons of a goods train derailed and crashed into the waiting hall at the Korei station in Odisha’s Jajpur district. The cause of the accident is yet to be ascertained.
In the case of the Dhanbad incident last month, the Shalimar Express was ahead on the same line as the goods train, but at a safe distance, officials said. “A passenger train’s behaviour cannot be predicted all the time. For instance, the alarm chain could be pulled, stopping the train suddenly. So there is definitely a safety risk,” said the top official.
Sources, meanwhile, pointed to other incidents linked to the braking system. In December last year, a coal-laden goods train collided with an empty goods rake head on a slope near Kurkura in Ranchi division, they said. In March this year, a goods train rammed into another from behind in Jamgaon, they said.
The Railways is working on resolving the issue, it is learnt. According to sources, technical teams from the German company Knorr-Bremse, which manufactures these brakes, have been pressed into service. The Rail Ministry has also withheld payments due to the company, the sources said. But a solution has proved elusive, so far.
Introduced over a decade ago, BMBS is an apparatus in which braking cylinders are attached to the bogie — the trolley that connects the two wheels. Each wagon has two trolleys. While traditional systems had around 72 moving parts involved in the braking process, BMBS reduces the number to around 40. The aim is to increase reliability and safety, and reduce maintenance needs.
The Railway Board did not respond to queries from The Indian Express on the braking system. Top officials dealing with the issue said that while the system is in use for over a decade now, the freight stock is being pushed for greater speeds and faster turnaround times. “So the problem has to be related to either the latest batch of equipment supplied or with maintenance of these wagons,” an official said.
According to officials, there are two vendors supplying this technology to the Railways: KBIPL (Knorr-Bremse India Pvt Ltd), the Indian arm of the German brake equipment manufacturer, and Escorts Ltd.
The RDSO letter of August said: “…it has been pointed out that there is a known deficiency in BMBS supplied by M/S KBIPL of lesser brake force and inconsistent braking distances.”
In an emailed response to The Indian Express, a KBIPL spokesperson said: “Our products fully comply with all in-country and international requirements. In fact, they have been running successfully in Indian Railways’ freight train fleets for more than a decade since they had been initially introduced. Our brakes are not at fault in the alleged unexplainable behaviour in train brake operation. In a spirit of cooperation, Knorr-Bremse has been maintaining an intensive dialogue with Indian Railways over months as part of our ongoing efforts to help.”
The RDSO letter, meanwhile, indicates that dismantling the system is not an option. “Reducing speeds will mitigate risks as it is not feasible to stop all wagons fitted with BMBS…,” it stated.
Accordingly, it was recommended that loaded wagons in slopes or on downward gradients be run at a reduced speed of 50 kmph of top speed and 65 kmph on level tracks. And goods trains on Dedicated Freight Corridors, which do not have any passenger trains running on them, can touch a top speed of 80 kmph.