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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Derailment of Kalka Mail

As I have mentioned in the introduction to my blog, I will write mostly about education, but sometimes, I will write about other issues as well. This post is related to my older passion, trains. The worst train disaster of the year happened in my backyard a few days ago. Kalka Mail derailed and lots of coaches climbed on top of each other, resulting in more than 60 deaths and over 250 injured. There is enough speculation in the media about the cause of the train accident, and I will wait for the report of the Chief Commissioner of Railway Safety before believing any of the theories being forwarded by different people.

This post is really not about this particular accident, but about how easy it is to do the right things which we still do not do.

In the year 2000, we imported a new coaching technology from LHB. This was the first major design change of the coaches after 30 years, when Integral Coaches started getting manufactured. LHB coaches are a huge improvement over IC coaches. Not only they look nicer, they are lighter, they have more capacity, they have much better ride quality, they require significantly less maintenance, and most importantly, a HUGE improvement in safety.

The coaches have anti-telescopic feature, that is, when there is an accident the coaches don't tend to climb on top of the next one. The coaches have crumple zones on both ends to take the brunt of the pressure in such situations. The coupling used (CBC) is stronger and the coaches do not separate out during accident. All these save precious innocent lives during accidents.

There were some initial hiccups in adopting technology for Indian conditions, and starting the indigenous manufacturing of coaches based on LHB design. But, all the problems were sorted out in about 3-4 years.

Now, if LHB coaches are so much better than Integral coaches, why do we continue to produce Integral coaches and only a small number of LHB coaches. I suspect that we do so because Railways is broke and cannot afford to buy LHB coaches. Remember that train fares have not been raised in the last 8 years, exactly the same time that LHB technology has been around in the country. (And that too despite a greater than 100 percent increase in the running costs during the period.) LHB coaches require almost double the capital investment, though one will save in the operating cost during the lifetime of the coach due to significantly reduced maintenance requirement.

If you look at the estimate of how much would be the cost of running a train using LHB coaches versus Integral coaches (including costs of all infrastructure, salaries, etc.), it is estimated to be higher in the range of 0 to 5 percent. That is, the pro-LHB folks would say that there is no additional cost because of huge savings in maintenance cost, while on the other extreme, some people believe that the cost may be higher by up to 5 percent.

Even if we assume the worst case, railways could have easily increased the fare by 5 percent in the last 8 years. That is about half a percent per year. I am sure Indian public would have easily paid that much extra for a much safer travel. And this extra cash would have helped Railways in procuring LHB coaches. If a decision was taken 8 years ago to produce only LHB coaches, today about 25 percent of the coaches of the Indian Railways would have been LHB coaches. That means all Superfast trains in the country would have had an LHB rake, including Kalka Mail, and within a few more years, we would have had an LHB rake for all mail/express trains as well.

Railways decided to be populist and not increase the fares, leading to a situation where Railways could not afford to introduce LHB coaches at a fast enough rate. This leads to increased deaths in accidents like the one happened last week.

There is no free lunch. We either pay in rupees, or we pay in blood. Unfortunately, the choice is not ours. The payment method is decided by Rail Bhavan.

1 comment:

Biswajit said...

Is one allowed to sue the managers of IR for damages in the event of an accident? Since one can't expect Rail Bhavan to do anything, class action suits seem to be the only recourse available. The suits have to be directed at individuals for maximum effect.