The lack of safety has emerged as a serious concern in Indian Railways (IR) with derailments and accidents at unmanned level crossings (UMLCs) still standing at a substantial number despite several initiatives being taken to augment railway infrastructure. The primary reason for the poor safety record has been the inadequate allocation of funds to meet the safety requirements of IR. Further, around 66 per cent of IR’s high density network (HDN) is operating at over 100 per cent line capacity utilisation, and this has led to overstressed assets and has compromised operational safety. Taking cognisance of the situation, the Ministry of Finance (MoF) recently announced the creation of a fund which will provide resources for improving safety levels in the railway sector.
Over the past five financial years, the total number of accidents in IR has decreased by almost 18.46 per cent, from 130 in 2011-12 to 106 in 2015-16. However, the number of accidents in 2016-17 (April-December) was considerably higher at 76 as compared to 64 accidents during the corresponding period in the previous fiscal year.
Derailment has been the biggest cause of accidents in IR. In 2015-16, derailments accounted for around 59 per cent of the total rail accidents, a significant increase of 17 percentage points since 2011-12. In 2016-17 (till December), the share increased further to 76 per cent. Meanwhile, accidents attributable to level crossings accounted for a 33 per cent share in 2015-16. These accidents occurred mainly due to negligence and non-observance of rules by road users or railway staff. However, the absolute number of level crossing accidents declined significantly from 61 in 2011-12 to 35 in 2015-16. In 2016-17 (till December), the share of level crossing accidents dropped further to 19 per cent. This is largely a result of the Ministry of Railways’ (MoR) initiative to eliminate all UMLCs by 2020.
With respect to accidents caused by collisions, the share reduced from 6 per cent in 2011-12 to 4 per cent in 2015-16. In 2016-17 (till December), the share of collisions stood at 5 per cent of the total rail accidents.
Overall, human error has been one of the major causes of rail accidents. In addition, several accidents have occurred due to the negligence of road vehicle users at UMLCs.
Investments in safety measures have been insufficient in the railway sector. Low internal generation of resources has been a key contributor to this low investment.
As per the high-level Safety Review Committee set up in September 2011, an investment requirement of Rs 1,030 billion was estimated over a period of five years to augment railway infrastructure in the country. In line with this estimate, the MoF announced the creation of a Rs 1 trillion Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh (railway safety fund) over the next five years. The fund will be given seed capital by the MoF and the balance will be raised by the railways from other sources. The fund is planned to be started with Rs 200 billion during the first year (2017-18).
Given the abysmal safety scenario, the MoR has accorded the highest priority to passenger safety and has undertaken a number of initiatives over the past few years.
The elimination of UMLCs has been a major step in this regard. As of June 2016, the total number of UMLCs in the country stood at 9,340. IR plans to eliminate at least 1,200 UMLCs every year and all by 2020. For the year 2016-17, IR plans to close 207 UMLCs with negligible train vehicle units, merging 360 UMLCs to nearby level crossing/rail overbridges (RoBs)/rail underbridges (RuBs), constructing 1,390 RuBs and 15 RoBs, and manning 871 UMLCs. A pilot project has also been initiated for improving safety at UMLCs which include automatic warnings for road users through flashing lights and sensors for obstructions on level crossings, and visual warnings to train drivers.
The construction of RoBs/RuBs has also been undertaken to improve safety. As of September 2016, a total of 1,592 RoBs were sanctioned. Of these, 239 have been completed, 126 are partially completed (railway portion completed) and 1,227 are currently under construction. Further, 6,065 RuBs were sanctioned, of which 4,830 are under construction, and the remaining have been completed.
Standardisation and monitoring of rail infrastructure has also emerged as a key factor in improving safety. Track structures are currently being upgraded using prestressed concrete (PSC) sleepers, 52 kg or 60 kg high strength (90 kg per square mm ultimate tensile strength) rails on concrete sleepers, fan-shaped layout on PSC sleepers, and steel channel sleepers on girder bridges. Track structures are also being standardised with 60 kg rails and PSC sleepers on all broad gauge routes, especially on high density routes, to reduce fatigue of rails under higher axle load traffic.
Further, modern track maintenance machines like tie tamping, ballast cleaning machines, track recording cars, digital ultrasonic flaw detectors, self-propelled ultrasonic rail testing cars, etc. are being used. Electronic monitoring of track geometry is also being carried out to detect defects and plan maintenance activities. Modern bridge inspection techniques for determining the health of bridges are also being undertaken. Wheel impact load detectors have also been introduced for early detection of faulty wheels. Centre buffer couplers are being manufactured with anti-climbing features to minimise the effects of accidents. Also, vigilance control devices have been deployed on locomotives which alert the driver within 10 seconds in case brakes are not applied.
To prevent collisions, a number of technologies/systems have been deployed on pilot basis. These include:
- Anti-collision device (ACD): Developed by the Konkan Railway Corporation, ACDs has been deployed on a pilot basis on 1,736 route km of the Katihar-New Jalpaiguri-Guwahati-Lumding-Tinsukia-Dibrugarh-Ledo and Kumedpur-Malda sections of Northeast Frontier Railway.
- Train collision avoidance system (TCAS): Indigenously developed TCAS was successfully deployed as a pilot project by South Central Railway (SCR) on a 250 km section of the Secunderabad division. Further, extended trials on the 250 km Lingampalli-Vikarabad-Wadi-Bidar section of the SCR are currently at an advanced stage.
- Train actuated warning device: The Indian Space Research Organisation has initiated a project based on satellite communication systems to warn road users at UMLC gates. This communication system is currently under development.
- Train protection and warning system (TPWS): A pilot project covering an over 50 route km suburban section of the Chennai-Gummidipundi stretch on all electric multiple unit rakes under Southern Railway; and over 200 route km on the Hazrat Nizamuddin-Agra Cantt section have been taken up for TPWS deployment. Work on the 67 route km Chennai-Basin Bridge-Arakkonam section has also commenced. In all, the implementation of Phase I of the TPWS has been undertaken on 1,240 route km automatic signalling suburban sections of the zonal railways.
- Train management system (TMS): TMS has been provided on Western Railway and Central Railway for the integrated management and monitoring of suburban train movements. Work on the Howrah division of Eastern Railway has also commenced. Going forward, the system will be inducted progressively covering major junction stations for the remote monitoring of train operations and the dissemination of real-time train information to passengers.
- Fog safe device: A GPS-based “Fog Pass” device which displays the name and distance of approaching signals and other critical landmarks in advance during poor visibility conditions has been developed and is on trial. As of May 2016, 1,381 Fog Pass devices had been installed on a trial basis on Northern Railway (1,017), North Eastern Railway (240) and North Western Railway (124) .
Safety at manned level crossing gates and stations has also been improved. To enhance efficiency and safety in train operations, modern electrical/electronic interlocking systems with central panels have been deployed. As of November 2016, 282 level crossing gates had been interlocked with signals to enhance safety. Further, panel/electronic interlocking systems have been provided at 6,344 stations.
Other initiatives include the introduction of dedicated freight corridors to ease traffic on existing lines and congested routes; regular drills for emergency procedures; training/counselling of personnel; surprise/ambush checks, inspections, safety drives and safety audits; remote monitoring of assets (via REMLOT, Datalogger, etc.); collaboration with premier institutes for the development of safety devices and safety information management systems; setting up of a disaster management centre; developing a corporate safety plan; etc.
The way forward
In the years ahead, the creation of the Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh for improving passenger safety will be key in addressing funding woes and ensuring the effective implementation of safety initiatives by IR. Further, IR plans to deploy European train control systems for preventing head-on collisions of trains in 28 projects across the country over the next five years. It also plans to eliminate all unmanned broad gauge crossings and equip all HDN sections with TCAS in the next three years. IR further aims to eliminate and replace all obsolete mechanical signalling systems and overaged assets with electronic interlocking and complete track circuiting, which will further enhance safety on IR’s network.