A three-tier air-conditioned coach of the Bangalore-Nanded Express was engulfed in flames near Anantapur, claiming 26 lives in the early hours of December 28. The cause of the fire is still under investigation. However, preliminary reports from the site of the tragedy, confirmed by the Andhra Pradesh Director General of Police, point to an electrical short circuit in the coach. Fires in running trains are not new to the Indian Railways, but the unfortunate fact is that when it happens in the dead of night and that too in an enclosed air-conditioned coach, the chances of survival are bleak. Out of the 64 passengers in the ill-fated coach, 26 died, and some of them were reported to be passengers who came back to pick up their luggage. The TTE had the presence of mind to pull the chain, stop the train, and call for the fire service, which is said to have reached the spot in 15 minutes. Strange as it may seem, in July 2012, 47 passengers were killed when a coach of the Tamil Nadu Express caught fire near Nellore, also in Andhra Pradesh. Derailments, collisions, fire and accidents at unmanned level crossings account for the bulk of railway calamities in India.

For many years now, there has been talk about increased use of non-combustible and non-inflammable materials in railway coaches. The Railways took a policy decision to make the shift, and coach production units were asked to go in for fire-retardant material. But this is obviously a slow process and new coaches could be made with them. The problem persists with the old coaches still in use. A major drive to check passengers carrying stoves or inflammable materials was launched, and met with some success. Two other major sources of fire incidents relate to overheating wheels and electrical short circuit. With advances in technology, it should be possible for the Indian Railways to detect such hazards in time to prevent a fire. Smoke detectors and circuit breakers have become commonplace and can easily be installed in trains. It is anybody’s guess whether all trains have operational fire extinguishers and if every railway station is equipped to fight fires. Several inquiries and Commission reports have pointed to gaps in safety measures and suggested follow-up action. The Kakodkar committee on safety last year pointed to an “implementation bug” and recommended a massive Rs.1 lakh crore programme over five years to ensure complete safety on the wheels. It suggested an allocation of Rs.20,000 crore a year, which can also be generated by means of a safety cess on passengers. The Railways should take the issue of safety much more seriously, and look at this and other ways of funding the required measures.

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