Decoding railway accidents

The tyre of one of the wheels of the engine broke and the engine tilted to one side, being thrown off the metals and twisted round by its own impetus. The carriages following it were telescoped, many being smashed to splinters. The wreck was complete.  Two drivers and two foremen on the engine were killed. Five British soldiers were killed outright and 31 British soldiers and four natives injured. The accident has created a commotion in the city, especially so among the officers and troops in the garrison.” As one can guess, this is a report from pre-Independent India. The quote is from The Glasgow Herald of November 6, 1891, and refers to an accident near Nagpur (the city in question) on November 5, 1891. The Glasgow Herald was especially interested in railways.  The same edition reports a robbery on the Kansas Express of Missouri Railway and a collision between a passenger train and a freight train on the Beauvais-Amiens route. There must have been railway accidents before, but 1891 seems to be the first time we have a report on a train derailment.

Every year, the Commission of Railway Safety (CRS) provides figures on railway accidents. There are figures from the National Crime Records Bureau too. In 2015, for example, 26,066 people died because of railway accidents and 2,650 because of railway crossing accidents. It was roughly the same in 2014. But such figures won’t match the numbers obtained from the  Indian Railways (IR) or the CRS. In 2014-15, IR reported zero fatalities from collisions, derailments or fires in trains and 159 from accidents at level crossings. There are issues in terms of definition. “For the purpose of railway working, accident is an occurrence in the course of working of railway, which does or may affect the safety of the railway, its engine, rolling stock, permanent way and works, fixed installations, passengers or servants or which affect the safety of others or which does or may cause delay to train or loss to the railway. For statistical purposes, accidents have been classified into categories from ‘A’ to ‘R’… For the purpose of accident, threshold value is the minimum value beyond which the accident would be treated as having serious repercussion on the basis of loss to railway property or interruption to communication. It shall constitute two portions: (a) threshold value of railway property; (b) threshold value of interruption to communication, either partial or total, where duration of interruption is equal to or more than the number of hours.” We think the IR reports all accidents. It only reports “consequential accidents”, that is, those above the above-mentioned thresholds. Data from the IR are about consequential accidents, or “serious accidents”.

A “serious accident” is an “accident to a train carrying passengers, which is attended with loss of life or with grievous hurt to a passenger or passengers in the train, or with serious damage to railway property of the value exceeding (…) and any other accident, which in the opinion of the chief commissioner of railway safety or the commissioner of railway safety requires the holding of an inquiry by the commissioner of railway safety shall also be deemed to be a serious accident. However the following shall be excluded: (a) Cases of trespassers run over and injured or killed through their own carelessness or of passengers injured or killed through their own carelessness; (b) cases involving people who are railway servants or those holding valid passes/tickets or otherwise, who are killed or grievously injured while travelling outside the rolling stock of a passenger train such as on the foot board or roof or buffer but excluding the inside of vestibules between coaches, or run over at a level crossing or elsewhere on the railway track by a train; and (c) a level-crossing accident where no passenger or railway servant is killed or grievously hurt unless the chief commissioner of railway safety or commissioner of railway safety is of the opinion that the accident requires the holding of an inquiry by the commissioner of railway safety.”  The CRS doesn’t inquire into every railway accident and its data on accidents include only those where there has been a CRS inquiry. Also, the exclusion clause makes it clear that a serious accident only includes instances where there is IR culpability.

COLLISION COURSE: In 2015, railway accidents claimed the lives of 26,066 people; railway crossing mishaps led to 2,650 fatalities. Such figures won’t match the numbers obtained from the Indian Railways or the Commission of Railway Safety
There was a reference to “A to R”.  Accidents are classified under separate heads and “A” means collision. For instance, A1 and A3 will be collisions of trains carrying passengers, A2 or A4 collisions of trains not carrying passengers.  “B” represents fire or explosion on trains, “C” trains running into road traffic and/or road traffic running into trains at level crossings, “D” derailments, “E” other train accidents, “F” averted collisions, “G” breach of block rules, “H” a train passing a signal in danger, “J” equipment failures, “K” failure of permanent way, “L” failure of electrical equipment, “M” failure of signaling and telecommunication, “N” unusual incidents, “P” casualties, “Q” other incidents and “R” miscellaneous.  What’s the difference between an unusual incident and other incident?  N would be wrecking or sabotage, not usually expected. Q6 would be something like “blockade to train services due to agitation”, not something that can be classified as an unusual incident.  You can see why the IR’s approach to accidents is different. L2 is “no tension in overhead equipment for more than three minutes”. This may not fit with our usual perception of accident, but the effect can be disastrous.

The writer is a member of the National Institution for Transforming India Aayog. The views are personal


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