T K Arun
It is a terrible tragedy that more than 280 people have died and 900-odd injured in twin rail accidents in Odisha’s Balasore district. The Chennai-bound Coromandel Express ran headlong into a stationary goods train at Bahanaga station, Balasore, tearing away and throwing bogeys on to the parallel track, directly in the path of the oncoming Bengaluru-Howrah Superfast Express, creating a second collision. This happened at 7 pm on June 2. Rescue work started fairly soon – that is the only good part of the story.
What went wrong?
What seems to have happened is the following. The goods train was diverted to a loop line, where it stood waiting for the Coromandel Express to pass along the main line. After that diversion, the switch blades are supposed to move the track back, to let any new train approaching the station continue on the main track itself.
When the green signal for the oncoming train is engaged, a parallel locking system is supposed to ensure that the points have been reversed to let the train run on the main track. This system failed, when the Coromandel train came in at speed. It did receive the green signal, but the points had not moved back from diverting the train to the loop line, and the Coromandel Express ran full tilt on to the goods train on the loop line.
Tragedy, twisted metal and politicians rushing to show they care have followed, in due course. An official inquiry will take place, with the Rail Safety Commissioner and other experts doing what they do. Their findings are vital, but do not crowd out common sense and the rightful expectation of democratic accountability on the part of those in charge.
The signalling system that is coupled to the functioning of the points that switch tracks failed to work. That is the proximate cause of the accident. Did some electronic dysfunction play a role in the failure? Was manual override engaged for whatever reason? Was some repair at hand? The inquiry report will give answers to such questions.
However, the last straw that broke the camel’s back is a phrase intended to draw attention to the load already weighing the beast down, and not meant to blame that final addition to the burden for the sinking of the ship of the desert.
Neither human error nor technical failure is admissible in operational areas such as railway signalling and air traffic control. Equipment has to be proactively maintained, repaired and replaced as required.
Ambition should match maintenance bandwidth
The culture of the Railways is far from an open book to those outside. But the way in which the Vande Bharat trains have been pushed into service one after another does give room for discomfort.
Train 18, which has been rebranded as Vande Bharat, was conceptualized and put together by a technical team of the Railways, spearheaded by a man called Sudhanshu Mani, who was, for reasons that are obscure, shunted out of the system and even had charges levelled against him. He was cast out but his invention found favour, and began to be built in numbers and deployed across routes.
Newfangled trains call for new systems of maintenance. When the Shatabdi trains were introduced, all of them had New Delhi as the starting point or the destination. This was to ensure that the new maintenance facilities at New Delhi could service all these trains. When Vande Bharat trains run connecting diverse parts of the country with relatively high-speed trains, ideally there should be maintenance facilities at all those terminals that the trains run to and from. The reality is far from ideal.
Glamour over safety
The political urge to take credit for running high-speed trains would appear to have taken precedence over prioritizing maintenance and, therefore, safety. That is not a culture that is welcome in the Railways.
Whether such expedience is restricted to Vande Bharat trains or afflicts other parts of the system, no outside observer can comment. What can, however, be said is that the inattention to vital maintenance even in one instance is disquieting.
The chief ministers of Odisha and Tamil Nadu have been prompt in deploying whatever succour they could. This is commendable. It is tempting to dismiss the hurried visits of the Railway Minister and the Prime Minister to the accident site as things that would divert official attention and resources away from relief work. But it is imperative that they show they care, and that they own up responsibility.
Ex-gratia payments and high-decibel inquiries will not make up for any deficiency in the culture of safety in an organisation like the Railways. Expansion of infrastructure and service has more glamour than ensuring maintenance and safety.
Prioritized glamour over stodgy safety — that would be a mordant epitaph for the politics of expedience, but pure travesty when applied to those who trusted the system to their tragic end.
The article was first published in The Federal as Odisha train crash: Newfangled trains need advanced maintenance; is Railways listening? on June 03, 2023.
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