India’s deadliest train disaster of this century : What went wrong ? Who is responsible ?

In the wee hours of Sunday (20 November) at 3.10 am, 14 coaches of Indore – Patna Express derailed and slid off the tracks near Pokhraya in Kanpur (Jhansi-Kanpur section), leaving 150 dead and more than 230 injured, of which about 50 are in highly critical condition. This is the deadliest train disaster of India in the 21st century. Most of the derailed coaches overturned completely and were badly damaged. Although 14 coaches were derailed and mangled, the sleeper coaches S1 and S2 which accounted for maximum casualty, were totally crushed into pieces.

On 10 July 2011, a similar accident had taken place at Malwan in Fatehpur when 15 coaches of Howrah-Delhi-Kalka Mail derailed, leaving about 80 dead and 300 injured. The accident had led to government constitute a panel for railway safety, which was headed by Anil Kakodkar. The Kakodkar Panel for Railway Safety had suggested various measures to be implemented by Indian Railways at the earliest to step up the safety. The measures included dismantling of all railway crossing and replacing them by flyovers/underpasses ; upgrading of signaling and tracks ; and modernisation of rolling stock by replacing all the old ICF coaches by modern LHB coaches. Now, let us go into the details of the Indore – Patna Express tragedy and see what went wrong.

1. Corroded Tracks :
While only 250 metre of track was damaged in the deadly accident that took place on Sunday night, the entire 11 km stretch of track between Pokhraya and Malasa is being replaced by new tracks with a speed restriction of 30 km/hr. The inspection post accident has found out that the 11 km stretch had corroded tracks and was not replaced. The corroded tracks led to the deadly accident claiming 150 lives. If this is the case, it is a sheer negligence and insensitiveness. This may well not be an isolated incident with a good possibility that multiple sections of indian Railways are having corroded and damaged tracks, putting the lives of thousands at risk. Not only the zone, but entire ministry has to take collective responsibility and ensure that regular efficient patrolling of tracks is done.

2. Damaged coach/wheel :
If the first person account of many survivors are to be believed, the S1 and S2 coaches were making unusual loud noise a few hours before the accident happened. The coach was swaying and slightly more unstable than normal. When the people complained to TTE, he forwarded the matter. A small inspection was made and everything was cleared. The drivers were issued instructions to take the train to Kanpur where detailed inspection and (if needed) repairs can be done. Unfortunately, the train derailed before reaching Kanpur. Failure/jamming of brakes or key equipments of the coach leading to a terrible derailment can also be the cause of accident, which cannot be ruled out. If the accident happened due to this, serious questions arise on maintenance of coaches and rolling stocks. The coaches which carry millions of passenger can not be dealt with casually, putting at risk the lives of millions. It is not a hidden fact that the rolling stocks are poorly maintained because of various factors leading to lack of funds, lack of properly trained manpower, lack of resources and corruption at various levels.

3. LHB Coaches :
In the wee hours of June 25 2014, a similar accident had happened when 12 coaches of Guwahati Rajdhani Express had derailed near Chhapra. Despited the severe intensity of the accident, only 4 people lost their lives and less than 10 injured. The reason was LHB coaches that are present in Rajdhani, Shatabdi and Duronto Express trains. The LHB coaches have CBC (centralised buffer coupling), which do not let the coaches get disintegrated and fly apart in an event of derailment. LHB coaches are anti-telescopic, which means that they do not overturn or climb on each other during derailment, resulting in minimum loss of lives. Most of the trains (about 90%) in India run on ICF coaches, which have screw coupling. In case of an impact, the screw breaks up and the coaches fly apart, climb on each other and get badly damaged resulting in massive casualty, as happened in Kalka Mail and Indore-Patna derailments. Kakodkar committee has suggested the railways to immediately stop the manufacturing of ICF coaches and replace all the ICF coaches with LHB by boosting up the manufacture of LHB coaches. However, manufacturing of ICF coaches still continue and the LHB manufacturing has not speeded up as per the requirement. This is a question which Railway Ministry cannot evade.

While it would be too early to reach any concrete conclusive reason behind the accident, no doubt it raises serious questions on various issues of maintenance and at multiple levels. Lives of millions of people cannot be put at risk. Safety cannot be compromised and must be of utmost priority. It is true that Railways is facing a massive cash crunch and needs huge amount of money to upgrade its decaying infrastructure, therefore along with the ministry, the onus is also on the citizens to be a bit more sensible. A world class safe and efficient service comes for a price !!

As of now, DRM of Jhansi has been transferred. 5 officials including Senior Divisional Mechanical Engineer & Divisional Engineer (Civil) have been suspended pending enquiry. However, Shri Suresh Prabhu and the ministry have lots of questions to answer and ensure steps are taken to make train journeys safer so that such accidents do not happen in future !

Kshitij Mohan