A lifeline takes a troubling turn

A spate of train accidents has ignited serious concerns regarding railway safety. The October 29 collision in Andhra Pradesh’s Vizianagaram district, which claimed 14 lives, has left numerous questions unanswered and serves as a stark reminder of the persistent challenges in ensuring a safe mode of travel for thousands. Sumit Bhattacharjee and B. Madhu Gopal track the problem areas 

Updated - February 08, 2024 03:56 pm IST

Published - November 10, 2023 09:29 am IST - VISAKHAPATNAM

Rescue and restoration work under way after the Visakhapatnam-Rayagada express rammed into a stationary Visakhapatnam-Palasa passenger train, in Vizianagaram district of Andhra Pradesh on October 29.

Rescue and restoration work under way after the Visakhapatnam-Rayagada express rammed into a stationary Visakhapatnam-Palasa passenger train, in Vizianagaram district of Andhra Pradesh on October 29. | Photo Credit: -

Pilla Kalavati, 30, wakes up at 5 a.m., just as she always has, but there’s been an overwhelming void in her life over the past couple of weeks. For years, her early mornings were dedicated to preparing breakfast and a warm lunchbox for her husband, Pilla Nagaraju, 40, before he left for work. Now, at the crack of dawn, the kitchen lies cold as she and the couple’s 10-year-old son grapple with the harsh reality of his sudden demise in the October 29 train accident in Andhra Pradesh’s Vizianagaram district that claimed 14 lives and left several injured.

For years before the accident, Nagaraju, a resident of Kapusambham village in Vizianagaram district of Andhra Pradesh, used to embark on a daily struggle that defined his life. Leaving home around 6.45 a.m., he would take an autorickshaw to reach the Garividi railway station, 10 kilometres away, to board the Palasa-Visakhapatnam passenger train no. 58531 at 7.41 a.m. The clang of steel, drone of machinery, and dusty precincts of a construction site in Visakhapatnam awaited him. He chose to make the arduous two-and-a-half-hour journey daily, as moving to the city along with his family was an expensive proposition.

Kalavati’s voice trembles with grief as she reflects on their circumstances: “Our village had no employment opportunities. That is why he took up a daily-wage job in Visakhapatnam.”

On the return journey, he would take the same train, the Visakhapatnam-Palasa train no. 58532 at 5.45 p.m. and reach Garividi at 7.33 p.m. By the time he got home, it would be 9 p.m. His daily grind deprived him of the simple joys of a relaxed conversation with his wife and child after a hectic day.

This had been Nagaraju’s routine for the past 10 years, but on the evening of October 29, everything changed. It was way past 9 p.m. and he had not returned home. Around 9.30 p.m., a fellow villager delivered the devastating news that Nagaraju’s train had met with a major accident.

It took three hours for Kalavati to reach the accident site, along with some friends and neighbours, as she navigated her way using the torch light on her mobile phone.

Amid the wreckage, she found Nagaraju’s mangled body, identifiable by the shirt he had worn that morning. The breadwinner of the family was lying lifeless near the train that had been his lifeline for almost a decade.

As she would find out later, the Visakhapatnam-Rayagada express had rammed into a stationary Visakhapatnam-Palasa passenger train. Three bogies were crushed and derailed, halfway between the Kantakapalli and Alamanda railway stations in Vizianagaram district.

S. Lakshmi, a resident of Gangavaram village in the district, who works as a babysitter in Visakhapatnam and commutes by the same train, recalls, “I was in the fourth compartment from the front in the Palasa passenger train. My cousin, Ravi Kumar, met me at Visakhapatnam station and said he would sit a few coaches behind as it was closer to the exit gate. That’s how he perished in the accident. His family was looking for a bride for him.” Still in a dazed state, she adds, “If I were also in the same coach as him, I would have met with the same fate.”

Loco pilot S.M.S. Rao and assistant loco pilot Chiranjeevi of the Visakhapatnam-Rayagada train were among the 14 who died in the accident.

Rail accidents on the rise

Rail mishaps, whether due to human error, negligence, or a safety lapse, have been on the rise across India, causing serious concern. There have been at least 10 reported incidents — of collision, fire, and derailment — this year so far, and the Visakhapatnam accident is the latest in the tragic series. The worst was the June 2 three-way accident near the Bahanagar Bazar Station in Odisha’s Balasore district. The calamity involving three trains — the Shalimar-Chennai Coromandel Express, Bengaluru-Howrah Superfast Express, and a stationary goods train — claimed 296 lives and left over 1,200 injured.

K. Hemalata, national president of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), an organisation that has been working for the welfare of the working class including those in the railway sector, attributes the recent surge in railway accidents across the country to policies promoting privatisation and the contracting out of various railway departments, including safety aspects such as track maintenance. She points out that the Central government has been increasingly entrusting trains and stations to corporate entities. While modern signal systems have been installed, loco pilots are not adequately trained, she claims.

“There were over 1.7 lakh vacancies in safety categories of the Railways. Though recruitment was conducted, and some posts filled up, there still are some 50,000 vacancies across the country. The Comptroller and Auditor General has also found fault with the Railways for diverting safety funds for other purposes,” Hemalata says.

CITU State general secretary Ch. Narasinga Rao says regular track maintenance assumes more significance as semi-high-speed trains have been introduced recently. “Loco pilots who passed the Visakhapatnam-Palasa section on the morning of October 29 reported malfunctioning of the signal, but they were asked to proceed at a slow speed. Immediate rectification of the system could have prevented the accident,” he asserts.

This is the third major accident in Waltair Railway Division of East Coast Railway (ECoR) since 2013. All of them were in Vizianagaram district, in which cumulatively about 65 people have died.

On November 2, 2013, up to 10 passengers of the Alleppey-Bokaro Express train died when they were mowed down by another train, the Rayagada-Vijayawada passenger, near Gotlam East Cabin in the district.

On January 21, 2017, the Jagdalpur Vizianagaram-Bhubaneswar Hirakhand Express derailed near Kuneru station, in which about 41 passengers died.

The latest accident shares some similarities with the Bahanaga Bazar train accident of June 2, this year, near Balasore in Odisha. As per the findings, the Coromandel Express hit a stationary goods train at a high speed, due to faulty signals, and the bogies fell on the adjoining track on which the Bengaluru-Howrah Superfast Express was running at its usual speed.

Inaccessible terrain

The October 29 accident took place in difficult terrain between Kantakapalli and Alamanda stations. Darkness surrounded the tracks that cut through sprawling paddy fields and mango orchards. Many passengers on both trains, especially daily wage labourers, had dozed off after a gruelling day of work. A loud bang followed by violent jolts startled them awake. They stumbled from their seats as three of the rear coaches of the Visakhapatnam-Palasa train derailed.

Of the 38 injured, many suffered fractures, including cracked ribs, due to a stampede following the accident. Murru Lakshmi, a passenger on the Visakhapatnam-Rayagada express, recalls falling from her seat to the floor due to the impact of the collision. A fellow passenger inadvertently trampled upon her, resulting in severe rib fractures. She was admitted to King George Hospital in Visakhapatnam, where she died while undergoing treatment on November 1.

Survivors are still haunted by the memories of that evening, when they wriggled out of the coaches through windows and doors, amid the pitch darkness both inside and outside the train compartments.

“We used the torchlights on our phones. Bone-chilling cries of the injured echoed through the area. Passengers of the unaffected bogies rushed to our rescue. The first help from the authorities came only after around two hours, but they did a good job. All the injured persons were shifted to hospitals in about three hours,” said a survivor.

Residents of Alamanda and Kantakapalli were the first to reach the spot and played a vital role in rescue operations. They entered the mangled bogies and pulled out many injured persons. “They got us food, water packets, and glucose sachets. They were angels for us,” said Murru Venkat Rao, a survivor.

Personnel from the National Disaster Response Force, State Disaster Response Force, Government Railway Police, Railway Protection Force, Fire Service, and railway officials, along with Vizianagaram Collector S.Nagalakshmi, had a tough task at hand.

“Using Aska lights and cutters, we started the rescue operation. It was only a couple of hours later that heavy cranes and earthmovers arrived. We completed the rescue operation and restored the tracks within 19 hours,” said an officer of NDRF.

Assumptions galore

On that fateful Sunday, the Visakhapatnam-Palasa passenger train chugged out of Kantakapalli station around 6.34 p.m., closely followed by the departure of the Visakhapatnam-Rayagada passenger train from the same station approximately at 6.50 p.m., both sharing the same track.

The two trains have been the lifeline for countless farmers, migrant labourers, daily wage workers, students, and employees in the region for the past few decades, providing them a secure and economical means of transport. However, the collision has now casts a shadow of doubt on the safety of this vital transport link.

The precise cause of the accident is yet unknown, as the official report from the Commissioner of Railway Safety (CRS) team is awaited.

However, preliminary investigation suggests that the Visakhapatnam-Palasa passenger, after leaving Kantakapalli, slowed down nearly 4 km from the station, says Saurabh Prasad, Divisional Railway Manager, Waltair. There is another view that the train halted. So, when the Visakhapatnam-Rayagada passenger left the Kantakapalli station 15 minutes later, it ended up ramming into the Palasa passenger.

The initial explanation offered by railway officials was that the loco pilot of Visakhapatnam-Rayagada passenger train had ‘overshot’ the signal. This implied that the signal might have been yellow, double yellow or red, instead of green, and the pilot failed to notice it. However, there is no clarity on the status of the signal at that time and it is currently under investigation, say railway authorities.

Experts and former loco pilots have demanded to know why the Visakhapatnam-Palasa train slowed down or came to a halt just a few kilometres from Kantakapalli.

There is speculation that the overhead electric cable may have snapped. Railway officials, however, refute this claim, arguing that if the cable had indeed snapped, it would have led to a complete power outage across the sector, affecting the Visakhapatnam-Rayagada train as well, and causing it to slow down or stop.

Officials have offered an alternative explanation, stating that there may have been an issue with the pantograph, or ‘panto’, an apparatus mounted on the roof of all electric trains to extract power from the overhead power line through contact.

According to the Divisional Railway Manager, all passenger trains on this route have been authorised to clock speeds of up to 110 kmph. At the time of the collision, the Visakhapatnam-Rayagada train was reportedly running at 60 kmph to 80 kmph. However, this aspect too is subject to further investigation.

Technical glitch or human error?

The route connecting Visakhapatnam, Kothavalasa, and Vizianagaram is the only fully automated section featuring an interlocking system. Within this system, the signals operate with a smart technology that adjusts according to a train’s speed and track conditions. For instance, if the 58532 Visakhapatnam-Palasa passenger train were to slow down or come to a halt, the signals would automatically have changed.

ECoR officials emphasise the need to investigate whether the signals indeed changed or if there was a malfunction. “We have to verify if the Visakhapatnam-Rayagada train had overshot the signal due to negligence or if it was just human error,” point out ECoR officials.

In the automatic signal system, signal posts are positioned every 500 metres, unlike the manual system where trains running on the same track are given the green signal once they leave a station. Within this system, trains are scheduled to operate on the same track with a time gap of approximately 15 to 20 minutes.

Authorities say that due to the possible faulty red signal, the Palasa passenger train came to a halt for about two minutes and then resumed its journey at a speed of about 10 kmph. However, the other train allegedly did not exercise caution, despite encountering the malfunctioning caution signal, and continued to advance at a considerable speed.

According to the Divisional Railway Manager, neither train was equipped with the indigenous Train Collision Avoidance System (TCAS), subsequently renamed Kavach, but instead, were fitted with the earlier version known as Vigilance Control Device (VCD).

“All angles, including the signal fault aspect, speed graph, and other human errors are being examined and the final report will be released shortly,” an officer from the CRS says.

Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy has requested the Centre to constitute a high-level safety audit committee to examine the reasons behind all the train accidents in the country, with special focus on braking and signalling issues.

(With inputs from K. Srinivasa Rao)

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