The Indian Railways has been found remiss again. A deadly fire caused apparently by a short-circuit in a sleeper bogie of the Tamil Nadu Express as it hurtled through the night, spells more bad news for a railway network that is already plagued by a poor safety record. Negligent standards of electrical maintenance are what initial assessments point to. The Indian Railways’ manuals on fire safety have quite a detailed elaboration of the type of safeguards needed to counter fire accidents including those caused by electrical malfunctions. In fact, in the context of the Nellore accident, almost every one of the guidelines could form part of a checklist to assess the level of seriousness with which the Railways takes its duties and responsibilities on this front. Have there been periodic inspections to ensure that the rolling stock involved was protected against the risk of fire? Was availability of fire-fighting equipment on board ensured? Were staff trained to fight fires, and were any fire-fighting devices properly maintained? The list can go on. This is the fourth fire accident in the Indian Railways in the last two years. Given the number of fires that have hit the system over the years with devastating effect, one basic question remains: why aren’t fire extinguishers, secured suitably if needed, provided inside all bogies? Why isn’t smoke detection equipment installed in each bogie, aligned with sprinkler and other suitable dousing systems? Significantly, in the absence of such a built-in system to alert the train crew, it took a railway worker who watched the train pass to raise the alarm. It was following this that the train was stopped and the burning bogie detached to prevent the blaze from spreading. If the Railways hasn’t found it worth its while to go in for such safeguards on all its trains, now is surely the time to do so.
Modernisation is the mantra of the Railways but surely basic issues of safety in the current system need to be addressed immediately. Even the ambitious plan submitted earlier this year by the Expert Group for the modernisation of Indian Railways, that requires Rs.560,000 crore over the next five years, did not seem to have focussed adequately on the safety aspect. The need for modernisation and a technological upgrade of the system cannot be over-emphasised. But during that quest, safety should take a front seat. From engine and bogie redesign and retrofitting to organisational culture and training, the Indian Railways has to devise foolproof ways of dealing with fires and collisions — the prime causes of accidental death on the tracks. The safety of passengers cannot be an afterthought, a detail that comes at the end of a checklist.