A reason behind the high casualties in Sunday’s accident is that the Indore-Patna Express had ICF coaches, which are notorious for piling up in case of accidents — a feature that distinctly separate them from the modern Linke Hoffman Busch (LHB) coaches that make up premium trains such as the Rajdhanis and Shatabdis.
Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu had promised in the 2015-16 Budget that all trains would eventually have LHB coaches and that the ICF coaches would be phased out.
For over a year now, the Railway Board has been stalling this process, saying the industry would not be able to match the scale of production of the new coaches. So the number of new ICF coaches is as high as, and in certain cases higher than, the number of fresh LHB coaches pushed into the system every year. Currently, around 55,000 of ICF coaches of varying ages are in circulation while the number of LHB coaches is just about 5,000-8,000.
Sources in the ministry said Prabhu had issued an order, soon after the 2015-16 Budget, to formalise the policy for a total conversion into LHB, but the Railways bureaucracy has stalled it by asking him to reconsider the pace of conversion.
The design of the ICF coaches is of the 1950s’ vintage. The coaches get their name from the Integral Coach Factory at Perambur in Chennai, where they are built. They were first designed in collaboration with Swiss company Schlieren. One of the shortcomings of these coaches is that the design is not meant for speeds above 80-90 kmph, unlike the LHB coaches, which are designed for speeds upwards of 120 kmph. Unlike the ICF coaches, LHBs are especially designed to not pile up in case of accidents such as the one on Sunday.
Sources in the ministry said ICF coaches continued to thrive, despite LHB being in circulation for some years now, because the industry involved in the production of the ICF coaches is an old one and has been lobbying hard for its survival.
Internal targets set by the ministry claim ICF coaches, or “conventional coaches” as they are called, will be totally replaced by LHB coaches by 2020. After Sunday’s accident, there is a thinking within the government that the deadline for conversion to LHB coaches needs to be advanced by a couple of years.
“There is no doubt that LHB coaches are better in situations like these. So we will go for a gradual phase-out of ICF coaches, but the industry supporting the production (of LHB coaches) should also be able to match that scale and that cannot happen overnight,” Railway Board Member, Mechanical, Hemant Kumar told The Indian Express.
The Sam Pitroda commitee on Railway modernisation, among others, had questioned the need to continue with the fleet of outdated ICF coaches.