Government pulls the alarm chain on rail safety after anti-collision device fails tests

In the dead of the night when a train hurtles towards its destination in pitch darkness or a blanket of fog in the Indian heartland, the only safety measures are the driver's instinct and his eyes.

If his mental radar fails to read an approaching train on the same track, there is no anti-collision device that could avert an accident such as the horrific collision at Sainthia in West Bengal in July 2010 when the Uttar Banga Express hit the Vananchal Express, killing 63 people and maiming over 165.

After every catastrophic accident, the government and the railways promise to put in place better and modern safety equipment on the tracks. But these proposals jump rails soon after for various reasons.

Twisted bogies of the Uttar Banga Express and Vananchal Express after the trains collided in West Bengal in 2010

Twisted bogies of the Uttar Banga Express and Vananchal Express after the trains collided in West Bengal in 2010

One such ambitious project was anti-collision devices, hanging fire for almost a decade.

By the railway ministry's own admission in the Parliament, trial runs have proved that the device was 'jammed with technical and operational glitches'.

Following 'unsuccessful' trials in the North-East Frontier Railway since 2007 and in the Southern Railway since last year, the ministry said it was 'considering an alternative' because the device was a 'complete failure on high frequency routes and sections with multiple lines'.

'There are so many problems with the anti-collision device, including unwarranted braking, that the ministry is thinking of going for another system,' minister of state for railways Bharatsinh Solanki said.

Worried: Minister of state for railways Bharatsinh Solanki

Worried: Minister of state for railways Bharatsinh Solanki

The ministry's failure confirmed former railway minister Dinesh Trivedi's prophetic statement that was one of factors that cost him his job.

'I still get nightmares because the railway is in the intensive care unit (ICU) mode,' he had said while presenting the railway Budget.


January 11, 2012: Five persons killed and nine others, including a child, injured in a collision between the Delhi-bound Brahmaputra Mail and a stationary goods train.

September 13, 2011: Chennai
suburban train rams into stationary Arakonam- Katpadi passenger train
between Melpakkam and Chitheri stations in Vellore district, killing 10 passengers.

September 20, 2010: Goods
train collides with Indore-Gwalior Intercity Express at Badarwas, Madhya Pradesh. The accident killed 33 passengers and left more than 160 injured.

July 19, 2010: Uttar Banga Express collides with Vananchal Express in West Bengal, killing 63 passengers
and injuring 165 more.

Trivedi was not the only one. Expert committees on safety, chaired by Sam Pitroda and Dr Anil Kakodkar, had prescribed heavy investment and innovative mechanisms to 'steer the railways out of the ICU'.

The anti-collision device was in the works for over a decade, though the trials began in 2007. Trivedi was frank enough to admit: 'If a thing has not worked for 10 years, it is not going to deliver anyway.'

Both Pitroda and Kakodkar had echoed Trivedi's fears and trashed the device. That's not all. It has also been revealed that fog safety devices have also 'proved a failure in the trial runs'.

But Railway Board officials were not forthcoming in explaining why the safety net was crumbling. The anti-collision device has a global positioning system that continuously checks for other locomotives in the vicinity and automatically applies the brakes in a collision-like situation.

The cash-hit railway ministry has already spent around Rs15,767 crore over the past three years on safety equipment, including testing the anti-collision device.

Now that the device has failed, the ministry has been weighing options such as train protection and warning system (TPWS), train collision avoidance system (TCAS) and vigilance control device (VDC). But many in the Railway Board were skeptical.

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