Rail trail

India's rail safety rests on the shoulders of 200,000 trackmen with 15 kilos of gear on their backs

As more than 130 people die in a train accident in Kanpur, discussion on modern safety systems has been revived.

More than 130 people have died in one of the worst railway accidents India has seen in years, after the Patna-Indore Express derailed in Kanpur Dehat district on Sunday. The incident saw 14 coaches coming off the tracks, leading to horrific scenes of mangled bogies and serious injuries, in addition to the death toll which authorities are concerned may still go up.

Since efforts are still on to rescue people at the site, officials have not yet spoken of the cause of the incident. One official said that another train passed through the route safely just nine minutes before the accident. Yet most seem to have concluded that the derailment was likely the result of a rail fracture – a crack in the tracks.

“A high-level probe has already been ordered and we will take strict action,” said Minister of State for Railways Manoj Sinha, who visited the spot on Sunday. “The engineers and experts will probe the cause of the accident, but it appears there was a rail fracture.”

Rail fractures

Rail fractures occur when a small crack turns into a larger one, usually because of the pressure of heavy bogies traveling over it. Indian Railways, which maintains 115,000 km of track around the country, is particularly prone to it in the season when there is a significant difference between the maximum and minimum temperatures in the day, since those cause the tracks to expand and contract. Poor maintenance and fitting could also be the cause of a small crack that over time could turn into a separation of rails. The result is a break in the tracks, which causes the bogey to go off the rails, affecting all the coaches behind it as well.

The Times of India reported that 50% of train accidents in the last three years have been due to derailments, of which 29% were caused by track defects. Accidents due to derailment have been up by 67% this fiscal year, up to November 15. Those numbers will be even worse once the Kanpur incident has been accounted for, especially since it came just days after another train derailed in Jodhpur.

The accident has also turned the spotlight back on passenger safety, with some claiming that the recent push to increase capacity and redesign business models for the railways has shifted focus away from core safety issues. The Hindustan Times quoted an unnamed senior ministry source saying “somewhere along the line, routine safety drills have taken a backseat and the 1 lakh-odd vacancies in the safety category have remained”. The report also quoted Sanjay Pandhi of the Indian Railways Loco Running Men Organisation saying that the business aim of the railways, running more and heavier trains, has led to a deterioration in the rail tracks.

Track monitors

Some of the focus might turn back to the physical way that Indian Railways actually maintains its massive track length. One of the world’s biggest employers, Indian Railways has an entire department of trackmen – formerly known as gangmen – whose entire job revolves around maintaining tracks. These 200,000 trackmen set out every morning carrying 15 kilos of equipment and walk along a 5 kilometre stretch of rail to check it for defects.

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The work is hard, as well as dangerous. Trackmen spend most of their day on tracks that still have trains plying on them, which leads to an average of more than 300 deaths every year. Added to the danger is the pressure of maintaining the tracks themselves, since mistakes by trackmen could leave trains vulnerable to incidents like the tragic derailment in Kanpur.

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For years, the authorities have promised to develop safety technology that will better alert trackmen when trains are approaching and giving them lighter toolkits.

In addition to the trackmen, Indian Railways uses ultra-sonic flaw detection machines, but these have to be taken out manually and are thus likely to only travel over high-density routes once every two months. The authorities are working with the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras to develop automated detection systems, but for the most part current monitoring is heavily dependent on the trackmen alerting engineers about potential dangers.

Earlier this year, Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu launched the Track Monitoring System, software meant to store information regarding temperature and track-maintenance activity across the railways. However, The Pioneer reported that the new system is not available to those in the safety wing. “As a result, the monitoring mechanism becomes a closely guarded secret defeating the very purpose of the launching of the software application,” an unnamed railway official told the paper.

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