In July this year, 32 people were charred to death and many more injured when a fire broke out in a bogie of Tamil Nadu Express. The train, moving at a speed of 110 kmph from Chennai to Delhi, did not have any fire safety measure that could be immediately put to use, nor did the passengers have access to any facility that could help them communicate with the motorman. By the time help reached the passengers at Nellore in Andhra Pradesh, lives were lost and people injured. Later, in September this year, the engine of an India bound Samjhauta Express caught fire in Pakistan. In April 2011, Mumbai Rajdhani Express had caught fire near Ratlam. Luckily, there were no deaths in these cases.
These are just three recent fire mishaps in trains though the second one technically occurred in a neighbouring country. Accidents take place in our trains and on our railway tracks a little too often for various reasons. The point is: Despite claims by the authorities of precautionary measures having been introduced and followed, the safety of train passengers is still an elusive concept in India.
In May 2003, as many as 38 people were killed and 13 injured when three coaches of Amritsar bound Frontier Mail had caught fire. But between 2003 and 2012, nothing seems to have been done as regards fire safety in trains; or, if something has been done, it obviously doesn?t seem to have been effective. We are still working with age-old systems in our trains which do very little towards preventive or remedial measures. Fire extinguishers are often missing from our trains and no system has been provided to the passengers to establish a contact with the motorman or any other railway official in case of emergencies like fire. The train, in such cases, can halt only at the next station which might, and often does, prove fatal for many passengers. And this is only fire safety that we are talking about. Accidents also take place due to mechanical failure, crossing of railway tracks by pedestrians, lack of proper infrastructure — as there is very little investment in infrastructure or rolling stock or safety practices ? and existence of slums near railway tracks among many other reasons.
?There must be a periodic mandatory fire safety inspection of the train by the competent persons. Also, each coach should have attendants having training in emergency procedures and operation of fire extinguishers, etc. Design of Emergency Escape systems in the rails? cars needs to be reviewed and made user friendly so that in the event of fire, passenger can open the escape doors easily.?? Lalit Gabhane
Since Indian Railways? network is among the largest rail networks in the world, these near regular mishaps point towards the enormity of the problem. It doesn?t help to know that Indian Railways (IR) is the largest public sector undertaking in India and that it has over 7000 stations and a coverage area that stretches beyond 62,000kms.
So, where are we going wrong? Why do we have such archaic systems and lackadaisical approach towards safety in trains when it is the most favoured mode of long distance travel for a majority of Indians? Says Lalit Gabhane, Vice President — EHS, United Spirits Limited, ?Our trains are not adequately equipped for fire safety. Fire safety science has gone way ahead in terms of fire detection and control technologies. Heat sensing cables, thermal imaging cameras and water mist fire suppression system are some of the technologies available in the market which can be incorporated during the design and construction of rail car compartments. They can also be retrofitted. Safe electrical systems, use of non-combustible/ fire resistant upholstery/curtains, etc., in passenger compartments are also some of the recommended measures.?
Sandeep Goel, Director, India Building Engineering (AECOM India Private Limited), is of the opinion that it is necessary to step up the enforcement actions of the by-laws of respective corporations, ?particularly the provisions relating to the prohibition of carriage of dangerous goods into railway premises?. He says, ?The aspects of Fire Safety for Rolling Stocks are not well recognised since most of the incidents are not reported and recorded. The incidents in goods train remain unnoticed at the inception of fire due to poor monitoring mechanism. Incidents in passenger trains are noted and recorded due to full blown act of sabotage which any fire safety system would not be able to control or mitigate and therefore, much attention on aspect of fire protection is not planned. One of the other aspects is the poor documented information on such incidents which would have helped to customise the fire safety systems to be provided under local requirements/ conditions.?
?Accidents can be avoided by good house keeping, control of combustible material on-board, deployment of trained and qualified staff for checking and control of systems to be maintained. Other measures could be to control and restrain flash over situation by deploying passive and active fire safety measures?. ? Sandeep Goel
Lack of planning and enforcement of safety restrictions come at the top of the reasons to be addressed. Says Gabhane, ?We need to have strict restrictions on carrying flammable items/ liquids etc., by passengers on trains. Smoking is banned on platforms and stations but not in the trains. For fire safety, we need stronger laws for operations and maintenance of trains. In particular, there must be a periodic mandatory fire safety inspection of the train by competent persons. Also, each coach should have attendants who are trained in emergency procedures and operation of fire extinguishers. Design of Emergency Escape Systems in the rails? cars needs to be reviewed and made user-friendly so that in the event of fire, passengers can open the escape doors easily.?
The Railway authorities refuse to accept that sufficient and effective steps have not been taken towards safety in general, and fire safety in particular. Vidyadhar Malegaonkar, Chief Public Relations Officer (CPRO), Central Railway, Mumbai insists that many steps have been taken and yet many are still being taken for train safety, at least on the central line. Emphasising that IR?s Corporate Safety Plan (2003 to 2013) cites many measures to be taken which have been proving very helpful in reducing accidents, he says, ?Under this, targets can be given to all zonal railways. And Central Railway is doing much better than the target. This year, no case of collision of Central Railway has taken place. There are cases of derailment, fire and unmanned level crossings, but no collision.?
?The problem is not about communicating with the motorman, the problem is how to rescue and provide relief. We coordinate with National Disaster Response Force and other agencies very well now. For accidents where coaches fall in water, etc., we need expert help. A lot of improvement has taken place on the coordination issue and now Railways is not left just on its own to handle disaster?. ? Vidyadhar Malegaonkar
In case of fire, certain precautionary measures have been taken by the Railways, asserts Malegaonkar: ?When we book two wheelers in the trains, we ensure that its entire tank is empty and disconnected from the fuel pipe. This is done by the booking person himself. Though the Railway tariff allows certain residual amount of fuel to enable the passenger to travel to a nearby petrol station from the railway station where he disembarks, we do not permit that too.? In the AC coaches, modifications called ?suck through? are adopted that enable better performance and reduce the chances of fire. ?Minor modifications are done in the AC plant itself. A large number of coaches have already undergone such modifications and it will take one year for all the coaches to be modified.?