As the death toll has risen to 31 in the two railway accidents in Madhya Pradesh on Wednesday, both the Railway Ministry and the State government blamed ‘unprecedented’ heavy rainfall as the cause behind what a railway officer has termed “the freakiest of freak accidents”.
According to a report in the Indian Express, V K Gupta, Member (Engineering), said, “This kind of accident is freakiest of freak (accidents) and defeats all probability. Such was the intensity of the rainfall that the water-level rose around four metres above what is considered a danger for the railway track.”
Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan also echoed that view, saying, “Prima facie it appears that the cause behind the mishap was heavy rains that was never witnessed in the Harda region in the recent memory. Due to it, base material under the tracks got washed out and the overhead contact of the engine got disconnected, because of which the trains got stranded on the tracks over the bridge on Machak river.”
Chouhan’s explanation however indicates an infrastructural failure along with heavy rains. (Also Read: Why Rains cannot take all the blame?)
This being the fifth rail accident this year, and the eighth since the NDA came to power at the centre, Business Standard reviews the major safety measures proposed by Railways Minister Suresh Prabhu in his budget for FY2016, and how it compares with his predecessor Pawan Kumar Bansal’s promises in the UPA’s last Rail budget.
Prabhu’s speech for the Rail Budget 2015-2016 primarily concentrated on three key safety issues. Curbing derailments was one of them. The minister had promised primary track renewals with “modern track structure consisting of sleepers and heavier rails”, as well as better welding techniques. He had also proposed replacing analog machines with digital ones for testing of tracks.
This was similar to what Bansal had proposed: upgradation of track structure using 60 kg rails, 260 meter long welded rail-panels and improved flash butt welding technology. He had also claimed that 17 bridges identified as distressed had already been sanctioned for rehabilitation within the next one year. It is not known whether the Machak river bridge was on that list.
Accidents at level crossings
The major aspect of railway safety which both Bansal and Prabhu stressed in their respective speeches was the high number of accidents at level crossings. Describing it as a ‘disquieting issue’ Bansal had asked for an increase in the Railways share in the Central Road Fund from the then allocation of Rs 1,100 crore to a required amount of ‘almost Rs 5,000 crore’. He had also requested increased allocation to the Railway Safety Fund. He had cited a cost of Rs 37,000 crores for eliminating 31,846 LCs, out of which 13,530 are unmanned.
Prabhu suggested more high-tech reforms, saying that the elimination of LCs and ‘the construction of Road over Bridges (ROBs) and Road under Bridges (RUBs) was the Railways’ highest priority. He also said that as a short term precaution, the RDSO has been asked to develop a suitable device in consultation with Indian Space Research Organization. This device would use geo-spatial technology for providing audio-visual warning to road users at unmanned level crossings.
Prabhu promised to “install Train Protection Warning System and Train Collision Avoidance System on select routes at the earliest”. Bansal, too, had promised the same.
The major step taken by the UPA government was to set up a Railway safety committee under Anil Kakodkar in 2012-13. Bansal in his speech had said that the ministry had sanctioned some of the committee’s recommendations for implementation, while rest were under consideration. Prabhu promised to review all pending recommendations by the Kakodkar Committee over the next five years.
In the past three Railway Budgets (2013-14, 2014-15 and 2015-16), Bansal’s tenure saw 2,885 track renewals while Prabhu has set a target of 2,500 renewals. The NDA’s first major rail budget has also concentrated more on the upkeep and beautification of railway stations and coaches, with a greater stress on passenger amenities and digitisation of railway resources and services.