We must give safety the inviolability it deserves

A drone view shows derailed coaches after trains collided in Balasore district in Odisha on 3 June (Photo: Reuters)
A drone view shows derailed coaches after trains collided in Balasore district in Odisha on 3 June (Photo: Reuters)


The Balasore train accident should have us re-evaluate how much we prioritise safety, and reform as well as modernize India’s railways in ways that make it a zero-error operation

It is tragic that 288 lives have been lost and another 900-odd have been injured in the train crash involving three trains in Balasore, Odisha, the worst train accident India has seen in decades. The sequence of events preliminarily determined reveals that a goods train was diverted from the main track to a loop line—which are parallel tracks created to manage multiple-train traffic—to give way to the Coromandel Express. This passenger train subsequently received the green signal, but the tracks didn’t revert to the main line, resulting in it also getting diverted to the loop line and ramming the stationary goods train from behind. The high-speed impact caused coaches to be thrown around, landing on an oncoming track and crashing the Bengaluru-Howrah Superfast Express, which was moving at high speed. Images of mangled remains of passenger coaches perched atop the goods train speak of the violent impact. It’s unclear why this happened, though. Whether it was a technical failure that the tracks didn’t revert to the main line or human error will be determined in the full-scale official investigation that follows.

That probe will take time, but the accident raises questions about the safety of our railways. To be fair, the last few years have seen a big drop in train accidents, as substantial investments to upgrade infrastructure have been made. One initiative has been the Kavach safety system, which is an automated accident prevention mechanism that works by applying the brakes even if the drivers fail to, and halt the trains on a collision course well in time. The system’s implementation after successful testing began last year, and one can only rue if this accident could have been prevented had it been installed there. Nevertheless, it now becomes imperative that its deployment across the country be fast-tracked. It’s been developed in India at a far lower cost than similar systems overseas. But covering all of India’s vast railway network will still involve heavy costs, which should now be made a priority so that work can be completed at the earliest. There is no room for error in the operation of trains where even a single mishap can lead to catastrophic outcomes. Hence, they must be operated with a zero-error goal. This is especially important as we launch new and faster trains—the Vande Bharat Express, for example. Once bullet trains arrive—work on which is underway—train operations will need to get far more hi-tech, and function at efficiency as well as safety levels several notches higher.

All this requires bigger budgets and should spur authorities to think of reforms in the railways, which have been deprived of investments for much of their history. Too often, modernization and reform are sacrificed at the altar of affordability and other political priorities. Such thinking, however, is short-sighted. Modernization and affordability need to move in parallel, and we should not see a trade-off between the two. We’ve made the railways a lot safer in recent years. These efforts need to gain pace. Doing so could require taking some decisions that might be politically hard, but necessary nevertheless. Safety must get the inviolability it deserves, and our vast network, an operational ecosystem that is befitting today’s day and age. As India takes a more prominent place on the global stage, we simply can’t afford to send out an image of a modernizing country that is struggling to change its ways of the past.

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