The fire in the Tamil Nadu Express on Monday,which killed at least 32 passengers,came as a reinforcement that despite the 2002 Sabarmati Express arson in Godhra and the 2007 serial blasts in the Samjhauta Express,the Railways decade-old efforts to safeguard passengers from fire,especially in non-air-conditioned coaches,have proved to be a dead letter.
It now turns out that almost 40,000 non-AC coaches,or around 80 per cent of the total coaches,have virtually no defence against fire,because even the latest technologyan automatic smoke alarm systemto detect fire in running trains is effective in AC coaches only. The official explanation is that since the non-AC coachesthe S-11 compartment gutted on Monday was a non-AC coach have open doors and windows unlike AC coaches,the automatic sensors cannot effectively detect the change in the air quality,like smoke,in the event of a fire.
Globally there is no automatic technology available to effectively detect fire in an open environment… This kind of detection is effective in closed environments, admits a Railway spokesperson.
Turning the tag of fire proof coaches into a misnomer,it has also been found that the fire-retardant curtains,laminated sheets,wires and upholstery being fitted in coaches for the last five years are not really fire-proof. In the process of delaying a fire,they can emit toxic fumes thanks to the materials used,leading to asphyxia.
An ill-prepared Indian Railways only last week constituted two high-level,multi-disciplinary fire-safety audit teams with directors from electrical,mechanical and safety directorates and technical supervision from the Research Design and Standards Organisation. In 120 days,the teams are supposed demystify fire as a subject for the Railway Ministry.
The development of fire retardant materials for coaches entered in the Railways agenda after the 2002 Godhra incident. In 2007,terrorists triggered explosions in two coaches of Samjhauta Express running from Delhi to Attari. More than the blasts,it was the inflammable fitment in the coaches that helped spread the fire,increasing the fatalities.
The automatic alarm system,installed in Bhuba-neswar Rajdhani for a trial,is now supposed to be replicated in all 8,000 AC coaches for a cost of Rs 2.5 lakh per coach. But thanks to funds crunch,no one knows when that can begin. The alarms efficiency in AC coaches is under the scanner too because in the 18-month trial period,the train never caught fire,leaving Railways with no real-time trial data,though it is officially calling the trial successful.
There are countless small fire incidents every day in trains which are not taken seriously because they do not involve loss of lives or property, said Shri Prakash,former Member Traffic of Railway Board. No Railways in the Western countries has so many fire incidents… Railways needs to learn from them, he added.