The Unfortunate Odisha Rail Tragedy That Makes Us Question The Safety Of The Indian Railways

Odisha rail Tragedy struck on June 2nd, 2023 in the Balasore district of  Odisha, India. Three trains collided in a catastrophic accident that left nearly 300 people dead and over a thousand injured. The cause of the collision was a train entering the wrong line at top speed, resulting in a collision with a goods train.  Odisha rail tragedy The impact was so severe that several coaches from the errant train derailed and collided with another on the adjacent track. This event marks India’s deadliest railway crash in almost three decades and one of the worst globally since the catastrophic 2004 Sri Lanka tsunami train wreck.

India's Fatal Train Crash - A Tragic Disaster

In a recent tragic incident, two passenger trains collided with an idle freight train, leaving over 2,200 passengers onboard and at least 23 cars derailed. The crash is believed to have been caused by signal problems. The impact was so severe that cars were left mangled, making it difficult for rescuers to reach victims. One of the trains was the well-known Coromandel Express, connecting India’s east coast’s most significant cities at a relatively high speed.

The accident occurred on June 2nd, at the Bahanaga Bazar station near Balasore, located in the northeastern state of Odisha. The area is renowned for its ancient temples and as a 17th-century British trading post. With daily temperatures reaching about 100 degrees in May, the incident became even more unbearable.

India’s vast rail network is often referred to as being crucial to the country’s economy, central to lives and livelihoods, especially in rural pockets. Railway officials presented a paper at the World Congress on Disaster Management, suggesting that the average number of derailments every year has significantly decreased from an average of 475 from 1980 to around the turn of the century to just over 50 a year in the decade leading up to 2021. Rail safety has improved in recent years, and India reported no passenger deaths in rail accidents for two years in a row, until 2017, when 36 passengers were killed in a derailment in southern India.

The 2021 crash was the deadliest since the collision that killed over 350 people in 1995, around 125 miles from Delhi. Despite improved rail safety, deadly crashes in India still persist, underscoring the necessity for increased safety measures and other necessary actions. The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has hailed the recent milestone, but the issue of train safety undoubtedly requires continual attention.

India's Deadly Train Accident Caused by Electronic Signal System Error

A signal system error caused the tragic train derailment in India that left nearly 300 people dead and hundreds more injured, according to officials. The error caused a passenger train to switch tracks and collide with an idle freight train in Odisha. The collisions caused a catastrophic pileup that also involved another passenger train heading in the opposite direction. Officials note that the preliminary reports suggest that the electronic interlocking system malfunctioned, creating an unfortunate chain of events.

While trains carrying goods are often parked on an adjacent loop line to ensure the main line remains clear, the passenger trains involved in the accident were not overspeeding, according to Jaya Verma Sinha, a senior railway official. Further investigations will reveal if the error was technical or human, she added. The electronic signal system is a safety mechanism designed to prevent conflicting movements between trains. It also monitors the status of signals that tell drivers how fast they can go, how close they are to the next train, and the presence of stationary trains on the track.

Although the signaling system is considered 99.9% error-free, there is always a chance of error, according to Verma. She did not rule out the possibility of sabotage, though, this still needs to be investigated. The use of technology in ensuring the safety of train transport networks is critical, and this incident highlights the need for continual monitoring and improvement of electronic signaling systems.

CBI Inquiry

On June 6, 2023, a CBI enquiry was ordered in the Odisha train tragedy. Various reasons have been put forward to explain why the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) was brought in to carry out the investigation. Some possible reasons include:

Root Cause: The Reason for CBI Inquiry

The most likely cause of the accident, according to authorities, was a sudden and unexplained change in the electronic interlocking system. It is likely that this was due to human interference rather than just a technical malfunction, and a CBI inquiry is expected to investigate this possibility.

History of Sabotage and Investigation into all Possibilities

Previous incidents involving bad actors targeting railway tracks have been investigated by the National Investigation Agency (NIA). Although there is no suggestion of foul play in this case, it is essential to explore all angles and eliminate any possibilities of terrorist involvement.

Most Suitable Agency to Handle the Investigation

The complicated technical nature of this case makes it uniquely suited to an investigation by the CBI. It is one of the few government agencies in India equipped to handle complex technical investigations, which will be essential to finding out what really happened.

Rarity of the Incident

The failure of the electronic interlocking system is a rare occurrence in Indian Railways. Therefore, given the rarity of the flaw, it is important to conduct a comprehensive investigation to ensure that any underlying issues or technical shortcomings are addressed.

Concerns About Potential for Future Catastrophic Incidents

If the issue of a sudden change in the interlocking system is not thoroughly investigated, it could pose a significant risk to the lives of millions of people traveling on the railway network. Therefore, the CBI inquiry is viewed as necessary and urgent.

Political Motives Behind CBI Inquiry

With an election year in progress, the decision to involve the CBI investigation can also be viewed through the lens of politics. The Modi government has touted the Vande Bharat Express as a symbol of development and progress. However, the sabotage theory diverts attention away from the government’s successes in the railway system and provides an alternative narrative that must be explored and addressed.

India's Railway Modernisation Efforts Under Prime Minister Modi

The Indian government, headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has invested billions of dollars in upgrading and modernising the country’s railway system. The ambitious plan includes achieving 100% electrification by 2024 and going net-zero by 2030. Additionally, the railways are in the process of installing an anti-collision system that automatically triggers brakes. However, the system is operational on only 2% of the network and is yet to be installed on the eastern rail route, where the recent tragic accident happened. 

The government has prioritised infrastructure and safety upgrades, with a particular focus on introducing modern stations and high-speed electric trains called Vande Bharat, modelled after the Japanese bullet trains, which is one of Modi’s top initiatives. The government is committed to modernising and improving the railway system to enhance passenger safety, comfort and efficiencies.

The Negative Effects of Privatization on Indian Railways

The Modi government’s adoption of privatization in Indian Railways has resulted in a reduction of railway recruitment and an increased reliance on contractors. This has led to an extra burden on railway drivers who are compelled to work for long hours, resulting in human error. A significant percentage of drivers work for more than 12 hours continuously, and the number of accidents has increased. Railway accidents have increased to 37% in 2022-2023. Moreover, the signal staff is not well-trained, which contributes to errors and mistakes.

The government has abolished 72,000 posts in group c and group d leading to close to 3 lakh vacancies. The reduction of posts and hiring of private contractors has led to increased profits for private companies on the one hand, while on the other hand, railway employees are under increasing pressure, leading to an increase in accidents. Moreover, the railway has abolished one railway employee’s job every third day.

The situation has worsened with the retirement of railway employees, as many posts remain vacant. Between 2015 and 2021, only a fraction of the retired employees’ posts has been filled, increasing the workload on the existing employees despite an increase in railway stations and trains. The government must rethink the privatization policy for Indian Railways to address the issue.

  • Between 2015-2022, 72,000 posts in group c and group d have been abolished.
  • From 2021, the Railway has abolished the job of one railway employee every third day.
  • Between 2009-2018, 3 lakh vacant railway posts have not been filled.
  • After the coming of the Modi government in 2014, 60,754 people retired from railways but only 31,805 posts were filled.
  • In 2015, 59,960 railway employees retired, but only 15,191 posts were filled.
  • In 2016, 53,654 people retired, but only 27,995 posts were filled.
  • Between 2007-2008, there were 13,86,011 railway employees, but now this number has been reduced to 12 lakhs.

The Importance of Safety in Indian Railways

Indian Railways as an Integral part of Indian Economy

Indian Railways occupy a significant place in the country’s transportation infrastructure and play a vital role in the economy. Over 3.5 billion people travel on this network annually, and millions rely on Indian Railways for daily commuting. The safety of the railways system is paramount, and any safety lapses can have catastrophic effects, as witnessed in past accidents.

High Volume of Passengers: Ensuring Safety is Crucial

The number of passengers travelling on Indian Railways is massive. Any safety lapse in the system can have devastating effects, and the safety of passengers becomes paramount. The railways network traverses a huge expanse of the country, and it is essential to maintain the safety and wellbeing of its passengers. The impact of any accident is wide-ranging and can impact industries, businesses, and overall development.

Indian Railways: A Lifeline for Economic Migrants

As the lifeline for a bulk of India’s poorer economic migrants, trains play a crucial role in enabling people to move from one part of the country to another, facilitating better economic prospects, and having a positive impact on their home states through remittances. Any disruption or safety-related issues can deeply impact the economic migrants, their families, and their overall prospects.

Maintaining Public Trust and Reputation

The safety of Indian Railways is essential to maintain the public’s trust and confidence in the system. The railways’ reputation is closely linked to passenger safety, and instances of accidents and safety lapses can erode passengers’ faith in train travel. Hence, it is crucial to foster a safe and reliable travel experience to ensure that there is no loss of confidence among the masses, providing them with a safe and secure journey.

International Standards and Regulations

Indian Railways is often compared to other developed countries in terms of safety standards. Countries like Japan, China, and several European nations have implemented high safety standards, attaining global excellence in the field of railways. Following international safety standards not only ensures passenger wellbeing but also enhances India’s image on the international stage.

Connectivity and Economic Growth

Indian Railways is a lifeline for connectivity, facilitating regional and national travel and enhancing economic growth opportunities. Safe and reliable travel is crucial for fostering economic development, enabling the seamless movement of goods and attracting both domestic and international investments. 

Challenges in Ensuring Safety in Indian Railways

The Need to Revamp Indian Railways for Better Safety

Although the Indian government has stepped up spending on railways in recent years, there are still concerns about the safety of older trains in use. The majority of the focus has been on speed and comfort in the form of new trains, while safety concerns around signal malfunctions and deteriorating tracks have not received adequate attention. As a result, the time available for routine maintenance activity has been shrinking, and there have been serious lapses in safety.

Issues in Track Maintenance and Signalling Systems

The Indian railway system is one of the world’s most extensive and runs on mixed tracks with both passenger and goods trains using the same path. The tracks are often clogged, and over-utilization reduces the time required for routine maintenance. Experts such as Srinand Jha from the International Railway Journal maintain that these crucial aspects of track maintenance and signalling systems need greater focus, which requires adequate funding.

Railway Maintenance Spending is Insufficient

A report from India’s auditor general last year found that spending on basic railway maintenance had reduced since 2017, leading to safety issues. This report emphasises the need to prioritise safety measures, including track maintenance and signalling systems.

Continued Efforts to Improve Rail Safety

India has a poor record when it comes to rail safety, although the number of deaths from train accidents has decreased. However, the majority of deaths are caused by people falling off trains or being run over by them. Thus, a broader focus on safety, beyond derailments, is necessary. In the past few years, the Indian government’s investment in modern coaches, locomotives, and redevelopment of stations has increased rail travel’s frequency. However, it has also led to a greater need for improved track maintenance and signalling systems, which, according to experts, deserve more attention.

Closing Thoughts

The tragic Orissa Rail tragedy highlights the need for increased safety measures and a focus on maintaining the safety and reliability of Indian Railways. The recent incidents of derailments, collisions, and other accidents indicate that more attention needs to be given to the safety of tracks and signalling systems, as well as the importance of timely maintenance activities. Moreover, the government must rethink its privatisation policy for Indian Railways, which has resulted in cuts to railway jobs and increased pressure on the remaining employees. Despite India’s investment in modern coaches and locomotives, the safety of passengers must remain a top priority to maintain public trust and support for the railway network. The CBI inquiry ordered in the wake of the Orissa Rail tragedy is expected to provide critical insights and recommendations to prevent such incidents from recurring in the future.