In less than a fortnight, two devastating train fires — one on Bangalore-Nanded Express on December 28, 2013, the other on Mumbai-Dehradun Express on January 8, this year, claimed 35 passengers, including two children. While 26 people were burnt alive in the earlier mishap, attributed to a short-circuit in an AC coach, the causes for the latest accident in which nine people died of asphyxiation, are yet to be ascertained. It could be a burning cigarette butt or an overheating of a power generator under the lavatory of one of the coaches.
Ironically, barely a month before the December fire, an apparently worried Railways had conducted a 30-day fire safety audit to minimise the incidents of fire from pantry cars. Regardless of what statistics claim — that fires made up only three per cent of all train mishaps in the last 10 years, and that such incidents are on the decline — the blaze-frequency has been alarming. Ten major fires since 2012 peg the cumulative death toll at 65. It’s worth remembering that the smaller fires, involving no casualties, are seldom reported in the media, revealing the near-absence of fire-safety mechanisms in most trains. The fire in Tamil Nadu Express in 2012 killing 32 people and injuring 25 more was the deadliest of the lot in recent history.
Battling mounting criticism, the Railways is planning to introduce a new Australian technology of fire-safety alarm — on trial in Jammu-Rajdhani — since the previous system wasn’t foolproof. The talks of installing the system in 20 more trains, as of now, seems quite far-fetched. Curiously, an automatic system to detect fire and smoke in AC coaches — coming at Rs30 lakh per train — is on trial for nearly seven years, during which it had to be modified.
In an interview late last year, Railway minister Mallikarjun Kharge claimed though the Railways suffered a revenue shortfall of about Rs4000 crore, passenger safety will not be compromised.
But a cash-strapped Railways — with the largest network in the world — lack the means or the inclination to ensure the safety of three crore commuters every day. Two years ago former Railway minister Dinesh Trivedi wanted to install hand-held fire extinguishers in every coach, but the expenditure involved derailed the plans. Investigations have shown most of these fires are man-made and mostly due to callous authorities. The Tamil Nadu fire was caused by firecrackers, which are banned in trains.
Passenger safety rarely gets the attention of the Delhi-based Railway board — a monolith incapable of handling the many challenges of a vast and complex network, its growth exponential over the years. Among the several solutions for a drastic systemic overhaul — a legacy of the colonial era — a new system of a Delhi-based Union Railway board and regional Railway boards has gained acceptance among experts. Such a move, they feel, will be effective in dealing with critical issues like rail sanitation, communication, research and technology. Putting the Railways in the concurrent list would also take a lot of burden off the Union ministry, and could lead to better management with active involvement from the states.
Most importantly, the Centre needs to act upon the 2012 Anil Kakodkar report that had spelt out the dire need of modernising the Railways “with advance signalling systems, safe coaches, anti-collision devices, advance-warning system and strengthening of the tracks as well as laying of new ones”. Kakodkar had also highlighted the need to repair the 3,000-plus rail bridges in various stages of dilapidation. Modernisation would require Rs1 lakh crore in a phased manner over the next few years — an amount impossible for the Railways to organise since the Centre is reluctant to increase passenger fares under electoral compulsion. That sums up why an improvement in passenger safety anytime in the near future is a remote possibility.