The Tamil Nadu Express fire once again underlines the failure of the Indian Railways to do what it takes to prevent accidents

The Indian Railways will do well to jettison the sabotage theory in the investigations into the ‘Tamil Nadu Express’ fire at Nellore earlier this week. Quoting some passengers on the train who said they had heard an explosion, some Railway officials and politicians seem to be pushing the sabotage theory as a possible cause. But it seems unlikely going by the evidence as it appears, and the preliminary investigations both at Nellore and in Hyderabad.

According to preliminary indications from the investigating teams — including forensics officials — there appears to be no evidence or trace of any explosive in S-11, the coach that was gutted. The sources say that there is nothing in the remains of the charred coach that point to an explosion or detonation. As on date, it seems to be a case of a pure and simple fire, which could have emanated from or near the toilets of the coach. The shell of the coach seems intact — which would not have been the case had there been an explosion — but for the completely burnt out interior. Officials think that it could be a case of a short circuit in or near the toilet, which could have also led to the jamming of the doors.

Fortunately for passengers in adjoining coaches, the blaze did not spread. Railway sources say the explanation for that may be that there was no wind and the train was brought to a halt quickly after the flames were spotted. It was railway staff at the station who had sighted the fire. Some passengers had also pulled the alarm chain.

In addition to the police and scientific investigations, the Commissioner of Railway Safety will conduct his own probe into the fire and hold public hearings to record evidence and hear witnesses too. All these will have to be put together for the Railways to come to a final conclusion on the cause and then think of corrective measures.

Absence of corrective measures

The problem with the Railways seems to be the absence of corrective measures even after the cause of an accident has been established. There have been innumerable safety reports, commissions, and voluminous reports recommending a series of steps to improve railway safety. Despite earlier governments at the Centre recognising the urgent need to shore up safety and security, and releasing substantial funds for a concerted drive, not much has been achieved by the Railways. This begs the question: is the Railway Minister and his Railway Board taking safety seriously?

One does not need to probe afresh or set up new panels on safety. All that it needs is to implement sets of recommendations already with the Railways. And these deal with every cause of accident — from derailments to collisions, unmanned level crossings or human failure, and fire on running trains. All of them have been dealt with in great detail already.

Some minor recommendations have been recommended when for instance, communication systems were improved to enable better and effective exchange of information between train crew and the railway stations; a major signals upgradation plan was implemented.

Realising the importance of safety on the rails, the Centre cleared a massive safety plan to replace old rails and rolling stock. But this has not yet been fully implemented.

The Railways even tried an anti-collision device on selected routes and decided to fit every train with it — unfortunately not yet implemented. So we still have collisions, mostly of the kind where one train collides with a stationary train. Many of these accidents are attributed to human failure, which calls for a major retraining and safety orientation for staff.

Use of fire retardant material

When it comes to fighting fires, the Railways record proves dismal. Most trains do not have fire fighting equipment, even extinguishers. Even after a fire is spotted, it takes time to find a water source. There are manual checks in some stations to find out about overheating of axles or wheels, but it not enough and it is not done everywhere.

Perhaps the most significant recommendation till date was for the use of fire retardant material in coaches. Now that the Railways have many coach factories and are even importing special rakes for Metros or special trains, it should be possible to redesign the coaches so that they will be fireproofed. Similarly, Railway staff at stations, trains, and the Railway Protection Force (RPF) must ensure that passengers do not carry inflammable material or stoves with them while travelling by train.

As many as 32 lives were lost in the Nellore tragedy. Many of the bodies were charred beyond recognition, with the DNA test now the only option to identify them. Will the Railway Minister Mukul Roy and his ministry as well as the Railway Board wake up and prevent the loss of more lives to fires on trains, and more generally, in other kinds of accidents? When preventable tragedies are allowed to happen with an alarming regularity, there is no value to the boast that the Railways runs 20,000 trains or transports 20 lakh people every day, because there is simply no predicting if they will all reach their destination safely.

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