New Delhi: A promising railway-safety technology developed in India to prevent train collisions has come under a cloud at the Indian Railways after it received reports that the technology had failed in field trials.
But, the inventor of the anti-collision device and other supporters, including some in the railways, claim that there is a lobby within the Railway Board that is trying to prevent the device from being installed as they prefer safety devices marketed by some foreign companies.
Avoidable mishap: There have been 240 such collisions in India in the past decade, killing at least 2,000.
The railway ministry, after a series of field trials, had planned to install the device, called ACD, on all broad-gauge routes across India by 2013. It has already been used in Konkan Railways for the past three years.
Until now, the device was considered a breakthrough invention for railway safety and railway officials have said that they have received inquiries from around a dozen countries for the device.
As many as 240 train collisions have taken place in India in the last decade, costing at least 2,000 lives.
In various railway budgets, successive railway ministers, including incumbent Lalu Prasad, have presented the device as a way to bring accident rates down.
Yet, implementation of the safety project has run into trouble with differences cropping up between the Signalling and Telecommunication (S&T) division at the railway headquarters and the Konkan Railway Corp. Ltd, which holds the rights to the device, as to its safety track record.
According to some railway officers, Railway Board chairman K.C. Jena called a meeting last month to discuss implementation of the device and, during the meeting, objections were raised by the S&T division. Jena was unavailable for comment on the issue despite repeated phone calls to his office and to his phone.
Konkan Railways’ managing director Anurag Mishra confirmed the meeting but said he couldn’t discuss what transpired. “The performance parameters of the technology are within tolerance levels,” he maintains. “The board has assured us of all support with the product.”
According to Mishra, the last performance report on the device, recorded between 11 August and 10 September during field trials on Northeast Frontier Railways, showed that while the tolerance limit for wrong reporting set for the device was 0.25%, it registered an average of 0.014%.
On other readings, pertaining to the device getting switched off while the train was moving and recording the parting of a locomotive from the train, the device recorded an error rate of around 0.0933 and zero while the tolerance limit set for these were 0.1%.
“The reliability of the device is more than 99.9% on testing,” says Mishra. “The question now is whether we are going to wait for this ratio to improve to 100%, or induct the technology and save lives. Whenever there is a possibility of an accident, 99.9% of the times the device worked.
Mishra points out that the device is the only technology currently available to prevent collisions.
According to Mishra, in 2003, the Railway Board had analyzed 128 train collisions that had occurred between 1997 and 2002 and concluded that 82% of the accidents could have been prevented if the device had been installed. “In the remaining cases, the situation was beyond prevention. For instance, in many cases, there was no braking power,” says Mishra.
Interestingly, these are the same field reports that the S&T officials are now using to conclude that the device is unreliable. Says one S&T officer, on condition of anonymity: The device “had failed on many occasions during field trials at the Northeast Frontier Railways.” According to this officer, the problem is that the algorithm used by the device simply and often fails to read the exact position of other trains in the vicinity, which is how it is supposed to avert accidents.
“Sometimes the device says that a train is approaching from the opposite direction on the same track whereas it would be passing by on another track,” said the S&T officer. However, the S&T officer said he couldn’t provide data to support this claim.
A former Railway Board officer said: “There has been a battle for many years” between the S&T division and the Konkan Railways over the device. “The S&T division has repeatedly asserted that there were shortcomings” in the device. A senior executive with Kernex Microsystems India Ltd, Konkan Railways’ technology partners for the device, said they were aware of some objections raised at the Railway Board on the device but he declined to elaborate.
Bojji Rajaram, who invented the device, insists it doesn’t fail, noting that apart from the actual device installed on trains, a network of similar devices installed at railway stations and railway gates also supported the system. “So even if the system onboard the train were not to work properly, the station ACD would take over and tell the train the correct location,” he said.
Asked about how the device has fared on the Konkan Railways, Rajaram said it was not possible to give an assessment now as most of the trains that run on the route are yet to be fitted with the device. “Until all trains running through the zone are fitted with the device, it will not be possible to assess how well the system has worked.”
Rajaram insists that a lobby within the Railway Board is actively trying to ensure that the device is not inducted beyond current installations.
“This is precisely why I had the device tested by an agency of international repute—Lloyd’s UK rail transportation division—even before I put the product for testing in India,” says Rajaram. “The system has been tested even by the Research Design and Standards Organisation of the railways.”
Rajaram, who was the head of Konkan Railway, became a hero in 1999 when he demonstrated a possible solution that could reduce the number of accidents on India’s vast railway network. At that time, the railways was desperate for a solution in the wake of a collision at Ghaisal in West Bengal that killed atleast 250 passeners. Rajaram was also praised for handing over rights to develop the device to Konkan Railways instead of turning it into a private enterprise.
The stakes are high.
In India alone, the market for a credible accident prevention system is estimated at Rs3,000 crore if the railways continue to fit all trains, stations and railway gates with the device. Globally, the market for such a device is estimated by some at around Rs10,000 crore.
In December 2006, Rajaram wrote a letter to the then chief of Konkan Railways explaining efforts made by General Electric Corp. to enter into a collaboration.
In the letter, Rajaram warned that a technology war was on and that he had “to nip in the bud” attempts made by the well known multinational firm to “take away the knowledge I created, in the name of commercialization.
“To protect against such loss of very precious property that Konkan Railway got from me, I have been thinking since that case of GE trying to get Konkan Railway to collaborate on ACD was referred to me... (a) policy protection is needed for the officers as well as the organization to guard against this technology war,” Rajaram wrote.
Rajaram says he has also written to the Railway Board on the issue.
A GE spokesperson says: “We regularly explore opportunities for collaborations with other companies to serve our customers better. Some come to fruition, some do not. It’s important that experience and expertise of the entities involved complement each other to ensure success.”
Former Railway Board chairman J.P. Batra also says that some multinationals “were not very happy at the manner in which an indigenous technology was threatening to corner the market. “There is a demand for the safety device all around the world. It is a very big market.”