Rail fractures, the bane of the system

COMMENT

About six weeks ago, every Indian newspaper had carried a picture of Prime Minister Narendra Modi excitedly waving to photographers from the door of a bullet train. Also beaming with him was his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe. The occasion for Modi’s high-profile journey was he finalized a deal for a bullet train between Mumbai and Ahmedabad.

In fact, one of Modi’s dream projects is to give commuters between the two most industrialized cities on the western corridor a taste of high-speed luxurious travel so far unknown to Indian rail travelers. The Prime Minister has been hinting at it ever since he took office and preparing the ground for futuristic travel.

Indeed, it is a grandiose plan, considering its cost. The high-speed travel between the two cities is estimated to cost over 1 lakh crores. If anyone is shocked, we have been told that Japanese soft loan would take care of the cost.

Since the Prime Minister’s bullet train ride in Japan on November 12, India had two major railway accidents. The first, on November 20, when Indore-Patna Express derailed near Kanpur, killing over 150 passengers and leaving double that number of travelers injured. The second, on December 28, Sealdah-Ajmer Express derailed, again near Kanpur, injuring over 60 passengers. The saving grace, however, was there were no casualties. 

In both cases, it was derailment that turned 14 coaches (in the first tragedy) and 15 coaches (in the second one) into mangled mass of steel. Prima facie, the cause of derailments has been suspected to be rail fractures. What are these and how do they pose serious problems for railway authorities and undermine safe travel?

Rail fractures are tiny cracks or minor twists and turns in tracks, caused by extreme hot and cold conditions or defects during the manufacturing process or installation.

Rail fractures top safety concerns among major railway networks all over the world. While modernization of rail tracks and impact-resistant mechanisms in coaches would help minimize casualties during derailments, lack of such safety steps could result in high death toll as it happened in Indore-Patna Express tragedy.

Frequent inspections, closer examination of rail tracks, periodical replacement of old tracks with new ones are some of the safety steps that need to be taken to reduce the number of rail fractures, thus the number of derailments.

Generally, experienced train drivers could detect rail fractures from the track sound. But more reliable method is physical checking of tracks, done by thousands of linemen who alert/warn the authorities.

Detecting and rectifying rail fractures are only a part of the overall rail safety strategy. While modernization is imperative and overdue in Indian context, much more is needed to be done to make Indian Railways a world class. It begins at how railway stations are kept and maintained and made user-friendly. Except a few railway stations, a majority is British-built and smack of colonial era.

The immediate task for the young and enthusiastic Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu is to focus on modernization of railway stations and tracks. He is stumped because overhauling the gigantic public sector system is not an easy job and can’t be done in one or two years. Moreover, public has been used to low rail fares and grumble about the rotten system. Fare and freight rate increases invite protests from the public and opposition political parties. Prabhu has to strike a delicate balance between populism and modernization in the next rail budget. But he should not lose sight of safety if tragedies have to be minimized.

Studies indicate most of the tracks in the country suffer from rail fractures and if this problem is not attended to seriously, the railways have to pay a heavy price. In 2012, the Anil Kakodkar panel had submitted a report on rail reforms and little has been done to implement at least some of its suggestions. It’s better to look at the report afresh to implement the recommendations.

It is clear now that what we require is safe and comfortable rail travel and passenger-friendly, clean and tidy platforms, not bullet trains that serve only a segment of millions of passengers for whom the train travel is still the best and cheapest.

-SMR

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