With last week's train derailment near Vizianagaram, this is turning into one of the deadliest years for rail travel in recent times. Over 180 people have died in rail accidents, the highest toll since 2010, and more people have died in derailments than in any of the last 17 years for which data is available.
At least 32 people died in the Jagdalpur-Bhubaneshwar Express derailment on January 21, and 150 people died in the Indore-Patna Express derailment near Kanpur in November last year. With two other smaller accidents, the toll in 2016-17 is already 186, a compilation of news reports from the year shows.
The last time the railways saw such a high toll was in 2010. Two accidents made that year particularly deadly; the Gyaneshwari Express collision with a goods train after track sabotage by suspected Maoists derailed it and killed 141 people, and a collision between two trains at Sainthia station in West Bengal which killed at least 63 people.
But 2016-17 is unusual in the high number of deaths in accidents caused by derailments; in the last 17 years for which data is available since 2000, there has never been such a high toll from derailments.
Rajendra B. Aklekar, a Mumbai-based journalist who has covered the railways for 20 years and written a book, says that the need is to upgrade. "And when I say upgrade, we need to upgrade the network so that railway lines get some breathing space. The densely crowded network leads to a lot of wear and tear and gives little time for maintenance," he says. "Upgrade also means we need to improve the quality of our rail assets and use the most modern technologies in place for managing train operations. Funds are often earmarked for safety, but there is need to release those funds and follow up their usage to the ground level.," Aklekar says.
While train speeds have increased, infrastructure has not kept up, Aklekar says. "Accidents will continue to happen as long as trains run, but what we need to do is focus on how they can be reduced and how casualties can be reduced when accidents occur. The existing train design is from the 1950s when the speeds were comparatively low. Today at higher speeds, we need to upgrade the design of rail cars and coupling. We should also take a look at the various safety mechanisms like anti-collision device and train warning protection system that have been developed but not in use," he says.
In addition, some solutions are about governance. "Upgrade also means recruiting more people in safety as there have been vacancies at crucial levels," he says. "Indian Railway also needs a powerful Rail Safety Body. At present, the Commissioner of Railway Safety is more of a toothless body. It falls under ministry of civil aviation to maintain independence, but its functioning is more complicated than the railways system," he says.
The Ministry of Railways produces an annual statistical statement, which is the official source of data on rail accidents. (Data for 2015-16 is from rail minister Suresh Prabhu's reply to the Rajya Sabha in May 2016; since he did not separately give the number of deaths in derailments, the whole toll is considered for derailments.) The Ministry's data on accidents looks only at collisions, derailments, fires in trains and accidents at level crossings that kill rail passengers or employees. It does not look at overcrowding, trespassing and other such accidents unrelated to its equipment; as a result it does not include thousands of accidents which occur every day on suburban trains; Mumbai's suburban network alone is responsible for over eight deaths every day, and over 3,300 deaths in 2015 alone. The Ministry's data also concerns train passengers only, and so does not include people in road vehicles killed in collisions with trains, or people crossing tracks. The National Crime Records Bureau records all deaths on all trains and tracks, and found that over 26,000 people died in rail-related accidents in 2015.