Hirakhand Express Accident: A Recurring Nightmare which could have been averted

Published: January 23, 2017 - 20:05 Updated: August 4, 2017 - 17:05

As another train accident results in a steep death toll, the Railway authorities cynically cry wolf and claim that the tracks were sabotaged

On the night of January 22 as passengers travelling on-board Hirakhand Express finished their meals and dozed off early, little did they know that fate had some rather sinister plans in store for them. At 11:15 pm as the train entered Andhra Pradesh, the locomotive driver heard a massive screeching sound and instantly pulled the emergency brakes. The train derailed and as a result nine coaches, including an AC 2-tier coach, an AC 3-tier coach, four sleeper coaches, two general compartments, and the luggage van and guard’s cabin, collided into each other. Seven hours later as the authorities surveyed the damage, at least 40 passengers were dead and over 75 were injured. This was the third major incident in the past three months of a train derailing and leading to a significant loss of life. On November 10, the Indore-Patna Express derailed, killing 150 people.

Shrouded amongst these impersonal numbers were tales of horrible human tragedy. There was the daughter who after losing her father in the accident kept regretting why she had asked him to come along with her in the first place. There was the bride-to-be who wanted to give her wedding card at the Jagannath Temple to seek the Lord’s blessings. Both her parents perished when the trail derailed. The State’s response to such untimely deaths followed a well-choreographed pattern. Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu, who visited the accident spot with Railway Board chairman A K Mittal, said those responsible will not be spared. He then announced an ex-gratia payment of 2 lakhs for the kin of the deceased. Keen not to be outdone in this show of sympathy, Chandrababu Naidu announced Rs 2 lakhs for the kin of the deceased from Andhra Pradesh. Naveen Pattnaik similarly followed suit by announcing Rs 5 lakh for the kin of the deceased from Odisha. In a cynical manoeuvre, the authorities have been trying to spin off this accident as an external act of sabotage. The foreign hand is being alluded to. Local authorities are trying to find ways in which Maoists can be blamed.

The inevitable set of rituals which follow after every railway accident in the country is a classic case of addressing the symptom rather than acknowledging and treating the disease. And it’s not as if there are no funds to cure the disease. On September 9 last year when the Railways had announced their adoption of surge pricing, there was a lot of hue and cry. The level of outrage was far more muted than in 2014 when the Railway Ministry had announced a 14 percent fare hike. Both the times, supporters of the government had rationalised the decision by pointing out that increased passenger fares were critical for upgrading creaking infrastructure and improving general safety levels. Has this happened? Not really.

With an alarming operating ratio and spending at its lowest, the Railways have struggled to revitalise aging infrastructure. As safety margins keep deteriorating, track maintenance levels have suffered silently. Even if one were to accept the reality that track maintenance is a laborious and unwieldy task, one can’t ignore the reality that certain measures if they were implemented in due time could well have prevented the catastrophe that occurred on Sunday. LHB Coaches or Linke Hoffman Busch Coaches are designed by Alstom Germany and manufactured at Kapurthala Coach Factory. They are used in high-speed trains such as Rajdhani and Shatabdi. ICF Coaches or integral coach factory coaches are designed and manufactured by Indian Railways and are the more conventional ones, seen in most express trains, including Hirakhand Express. LHB coaches are safer as compared to ICF coaches due to a number of reasons: LHB coaches are anti-telescopic and do not turn turtle in case of a derailment as the ICF coaches in Hirakhand Express did. LHB coaches are made of stainless steel as compared to mild steel (which is a less ductile material and also heavier than stainless steel) in ICF coaches, this increases its shock bearing capacity in case of a mishap. In 2014 when multiple coaches of the Dibrugarh-Rajdhani Express derailed, the death toll was 4. Had the Indian Railways shown some haste in adopting LHB coaches en masse`, the outcome of the Hirakhand Express and the Indore-Patna Express accidents could have been radically different.

The fact that the priorities of the political establishment are grossly misplaced can be gleaned from the fact that in 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced a bullet train between Mumbai and Surat. Estimated to cost 1,00,000 crores, the train would service a paltry number of passengers who can afford a train ticket 1.5 times more expensive than an AC First Class ticket. A mere one-fourth of the amount budgeted for the bullet train project could ensure that every single train coach in India can switch over from ICF to LHB.

These suggestions aren’t novel. The Ministry of Railways had appointed a High Level Safety Review Committee under the chairmanship of Dr. Anil Kakodkar to review the safety of the Indian Railways and recommend improvements. The committee recommended a total financial investment of Rs 1,00,000 crore over a five-year period. To what extent will the committee’s recommendations be implemented is anyone’s guess. History might offer a clue. In a damning article published in Economic and Political Weekly in 2000, the author CM Khosla says, “In fact, there is very little new ground that one can cover on any subject concerning Indian Railways (IR). Indian railways have been looked at by more Committees, Groups and Commissions than any other activity in India. These repeated exercises, indicate, on the one hand, the importance attached to the railways, and, the conservatism and inertia to accept change and adopt a new course of action even if it is in the interest of IR, on the other.” Not much has changed since that article was published 16 years ago. As time goes by a media-savvy Railway Minister and the announcement of vanity projects like the bullet train will do little to hide this glaring reality. Between 2009-’10 to 2015-’16, railway accidents in India killed 620 people. Ex-gratia payments were announced after every single incident. Little was done to avert another recurrence.