Urgent Need: Greater investment and new technologies to enhance safety

Greater investment and new technologies to enhance safety

Emerging as a serious concern, safety has been accorded the highest priority by Indian Railways (IR). Accidents caused due to derailments and unmanned level crossings (UMLCs) still stand at a substantial number primarily owing to human error. Investment in safety technologies and rail infrastructure has also not kept pace with the growing demand for rail transport. This has led to overstressed assets and poor safety levels. Taking cognisance of the situation, the Ministry of Finance (MoF) recently announced the creation of a safety fund over the next five years, aimed at improving safety levels in the railway sector.

Safety performance and investment plans

Over the past five financial years, the total number of IR accidents 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) stood at 76, considerably higher as compared to 64 during the corresponding period in the previous fiscal year.

Derailment has been the biggest cause of accidents in IR with its share standing at 76 per cent in 2016-17 (till December). Meanwhile, the 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 stood at 19 per cent, which was significantly lower than its share of 47 per cent in 2011-12. This has been largely due to the Ministry of Railways’ (MoR) initiative to eliminate all UMLCs by 2020.

Overall, the poor safety performance of IR can be predominantly attributed to insufficient funds available for meeting safety requirements. Low internal generation of resources has also been a key contributor to the low investment in safety. As per a high-level Safety Review Committee, an investment requirement of Rs 1,030 billion over a period of five years was estimated 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 IR from other sources. The fund is planned to be started with Rs 200 billion during the first year (2017-18).

Recent initiatives

Given the abysmal safety scenario, the MoR has accorded the highest priority to passenger safety and has undertaken several 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. Safety at manned level crossing gates and stations has also been improved. 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.

To improve the safety of railway tracks, IR is now using prestressed concrete sleepers; 60 kg high strength rails with 90 kg per square mm or higher ultimate tensile strength; long rail panels of 260 metre/130 metre length; thick web switches for all important routes; and track management systems.

IR has also introduced new technologies to provide automatic train protection to prevent accidents caused due to overspeeding and crossing signals at the danger sign. Some of these are train protection warning systems (TPWSs), train collision avoidance systems (TCASs), and anti-collision devices. At present, TPWSs are under implementation at 3,330 route km sections on suburban and high-density routes. For 2017-18, the deployment of TCASs on 1,427 route km has been sanctioned.

Other safety measures undertaken include the employment of vigilance control devices to check the alertness of locomotive drivers; electrical/electronic interlocking systems with centralised operations; complete track circuiting; axle counter for automatic clearance of block sections; interlocking of manned level crossing gates; and the replacement of fillament-type signals with LED signals.

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 high-density network sections with TCASs in the next three years. It further plans to gradually phase out Integral Coach Factory coaches and replace them with Linke Hofmann Busch coaches that have high capacity centre buffer couplers and bogie-mounted brake system. Once undertaken, these measures are expected to improve safety levels across the railway sector.