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Our Gasping Rail Network

India manages the fourth largest national railway system in the world by size, with a total route length of 68,043 km as of 31 March 2022 and caters to both passenger and freight transportation. It operates a large number of passenger trains, including long-distance, suburban, and local trains, facilitating travel for millions of people daily. Additionally, it handles significant freight traffic, transporting goods across the country. In as much as acknowledging the vastness of operations, one cannot condone loss of life on tracks. That a collision involving three trains occurred a few days back, which claimed at least 280 lives and left over 1000 injured is most distressing, especially when technology is available precisely for such eventualities. Prudence demands that the reasons for the breach be understood and gaps be bridged as soon as possible.

It is not as if, only India is privy to such accidents. It has happened across the world in the past. In 2013, a high-speed train traveling from Madrid to Ferrol derailed on a curve in Santiago, Spain. The excessive speed at which the train entered the curve led to the derailment, killing 79 people and injuring many others. In May last year, in US, a Norfolk Southern train derailed with 20 cars, leaving the tracks in Mad River Township, Ohio. In Berlin, last year, a train crashed into a bus at a railroad crossing, and derailed, injuring the train driver and two other passengers. In February this year, in Greece, outside Larissa, a Hellenic passenger train collided head-on with a freight train, killing at least 57 people and injuring over 85 people.

Though it is important to note that our rail network is continuously evolving and undergoing expansion and improvements to meet the growing demands of passengers and freight transport, never has there been such a ferocious accident nor has there been so many casualties. Be it the Bihar train derailment in 1981, or the West Bengal train disaster in 1999 when in both more than 250 people died, the accidents were less severe.

There are a host of reasons for rail accidents. Human errors where train operators or signalmen make mistakes due to negligence, improper adherence to safety protocols, track defects, broken rails, track misalignment, loose fastenings, inadequate inspection and maintenance, mechanical failures, problems with locomotives, braking systems, coupling failures, errors in signalling and communication systems were all seen in the past.

Adverse weather conditions like heavy rain, snow, fog, or extreme heat that impact tracks, signalling systems, also cause accidents. Even sabotage, tampering with tracks, signals, or train equipment, as is being suspected in the recent Odisha train accident are valid reasons. As if this was not enough, we even see in many trains in the north, with passengers travelling atop the trains compromising stability leaving passengers at a greater risk of injury.

Whatever that be, it does question our preparedness for the development of high-speed rail corridor. Several ‘Vande Bharat’ trains running at 160Km/h have been launched in the recent past. Even a bullet train is planned and is under construction. High speed train network needs modernization and upgrades to enhance safety, speed, and passenger amenities. New technologies, improvements in signalling and communication systems, electrification of tracks, and the addition of more efficient locomotives and rolling stock are needed.

Safety is critical to rail network. Measures such as regular track inspections, maintenance, installation of advanced signalling systems, and training programs for staff must be implemented to ensure safe operations. Level crossing safety, emergency preparedness, and passenger awareness campaigns are of utmost importance. Our rail authorities and the government continually work to address these factors through improved safety regulations, training programs, infrastructure upgrades, regular maintenance, and technological advancements. Accidents happening in spite, is a disgrace. What more can be done?

Utilizing technological advancements such as positive train control (PTC) systems, automatic braking systems, and collision avoidance systems to enhance safety are a must. These technologies help monitor train movements, detect potential hazards, and take corrective actions to prevent accidents. Installing and maintaining advanced signalling systems to ensure safe train operations, that indicate track occupancy and over speeding must be ensured. Providing comprehensive training programs for train operators, signalmen, maintenance crews that include safety protocols and emergency response are a must. Even as public awareness and education is important, complacency has no place in rail safety protocol.

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