Spine-chilling 36 fire deaths in two weeks expose Railways’ negligence

New Delhi:  Two fire tragedies on moving trains within a fortnight killing 36 people have exposed railways’ gross negligence on the safety front while underlining its ill-preparedness to check such accidents. Nine people were charred to death when three non-AC coaches of Bandra-Dehradun Express caught fire on Wednesday near Thane. On December 28, fire engulfed an AC 3-tier coach of Bangalore-Nanded Express killing 26 people.

Around 66 people have been charred to death in train mishaps in two years- a reflection on its poor safety record.

In 2013-14 (till date), around 35 people were killed in seven fire mishaps while 30 people died in eight such tragedies in 2012-13. There were four fire incidents in 2011-12 which took nine lives.

In 2013-14, fire on trains accounted for only around 6% of the total accidents in the railway system while the casualties in these cases when compared with other types of accidents such as derailment, collision were as high as 26%.

“We have not been able to check the fire incidents,” said railway board chairman Arunendra Kumar. “The fire issue must be addressed professionally,” Kumar said, adding that fire retardant paint could be used in coaches which could be effective.

Even as the fire-related mishaps are on the rise, the state-run transporter, reeling under huge financial stress, has failed to act on its promises to ensure passenger safety. Along with financial crunch, the instability at the top in recent times and departmental rivalries have derailed the railways’ modernization drive.

Soon after any accident, the blame-game starts with one department holding the other responsible for the mishap, distracting the focus from actual cause and learning the gaps in the system.

While the transporter has failed to install modern fire and smoke detection system in coaches as promised in 2013-14 budget, many in railways suspect that the quality of material used in coaches is substandard.

As most people died due to suffocation and toxicity in the recent fire-related mishaps, an official hinted that the quality of furnishing material used in the coaches such as ply, curtains, foam and seat covers are compromised. “It seems the material used are not up to the specifications,” the official said, highlighting that five of the nine people who died in Wednesday’s tragedy were found to have suffocated.

Even though railways claim to be using fire retardant material for furnishings in coaches, an internal report of a Zone suggested that most of the materials used in berths are not fire-proof as claimed.

“The focus must be on minimizing the causality by using material which could check spread of fire,” an official said.

He said the transporter has plans to tackle fire incidents, but the major issue is funding, forcing a cut on safety-related spending.

Burning Trains 

Dec 28, 2013: 26 people killed, 13 injured in fire in AC coach of Bangalore-Nanded Express
June 2012: 35 people killed, 25 injured in fire on Delhi-Chennai Tamil Nadu Express.
Nov 2011: Seven people burnt to death after a coach of Howrah-Dehradun Express train catches fire

Incident questions Railways claim of using Fire Retardant Material

The rapid spread of the fire in the general coach of Dehradun Express has raised several questions on the Railways’ claim of using fire-retardant material. A senior railway official said, “Images of the burnt coaches show that the exterior paint was not of fireretardant quality. This could have further spread the fire, making the passengers’ escape difficult.” He said the external body was of metal, which would have been cold as due to the temperature dip at night, especially in winter. “Despite this, the fire spread along the exterior of the coach, raising doubts if the external paint was of fireretardant quality,” he said.

Sources said even in thorough audits, various materials used in the coaches have been labeled as non-combustible and non-inflammable . “Even in AC coaches, the Railways claims to use fireretardant linen but I have serious doubts as there have been incidents of fire which are difficult to control,” sources said.

In 2012, the Railways had appointed a committee of safety under scientist Dr Anil Kakodkar, which made several recommendations. Among the measures suggested was the installation of a flame detection system as the smoke alarm system often failed to be effective. It said there should hooters in the coach so that its sound can alert passengers in a fire and help them escape in time. It said the Railways should also consider linking it with the alarm chain so that the train can immediately be brought to a halt.

One of its most important measures was that the Railways should set a standard to evacuate passengers from a coach. The committee gave the example of aviation safety standards, where the evacuation time of all passengers is 90 seconds in case of any emergency during take-off and landing. The Railways claimed it initiated measures to reduce fire-related incidents . In its report to Parliament in March 2013, the Railways said it set up fire safety audit teams, besides ensuring three levels of protection in case of a short-circuit . It also claimed to have installed fire alarms and smoke detection systems in some rakes.

However, sources said the latest incident has revealed that even basic measures were ignored. Several survivors in the latest incident complained that the emergency windows were nonfunctional and hampered their escape from the burning coaches.

Recommendations of safety review panel 

Coaches should have fire retardant material.  Flame detection system should be installed in coaches with mechanism for sound hooters in many places in coaches. Its interface with alarm chain pulling equipment may be considered .

Implementation 

A pilot project to try the comprehensive fire and smoke detection system was taken up in one rake of Rajdhani Express Similar automatic fire alarm systems are being tested in 20 more rakes Fire retardant cable is provided in new coaches Two fire safety audit teams were recently constituted

We will have to wait for the probe to end to know the cause of the fire. But two back-to-back incidents call urgent attention to a couple of things. The railway administration has to be far more proactive in installing safety features (like smoke and flame alarms and CCTVs) and ensuring there is no compromise in the use of non-combustible material.

Departmentalism’ of railways blocks solutions to fire accidents

The spine-chilling deaths of nine passengers in a fire accident in the Bandra-Dehradun Express have evoked predictable responses from the railway establishment. Officials promised to “investigate the case and review passenger safety arrangements thoroughly”

The quality of “fire-retardant material” including curtain and linen used in air-conditioned coaches will be re-evaluated.  Compensation packages have been announced. Meetings upon high level meetings are scheduled. In short, it’s business as usual.

Grand ideas

The railways management can be accused of much else, but not for shortage of ideas. Every concept for preventing incidents of train fire has been discussed in the Railway Board. MoUs have been signed with the railways of western nations for the study of behavior of fire material under various conditions. A fire test laboratory has been established at the Lucknow-based Research Design and Standards Organisation (RDSO).

Cerebral research work has been done on ways to prevent the “toxicity index” from rising in case of fire accidents. Smoke sensors have been tried out in premier trains. Officials like to stress that the expenditure on passenger safety has risen from Rs. 30,162 crore in 2009-10 to Rs. 36,541 crore in 2012-13.

These grand initiatives have not helped prevent burn deaths in trains. From zero percent fire deaths in 2009 and 2010, the number of such deaths jumped to 30% of all train deaths in 2012 and 26% in 2013, official figures show. “Problems are that policy makers start looking around for high-tech solutions instead of focusing on basic issues,” an official said.

Problem areas

Ostensibly, some low-cost but effective solutions are possible. For instance, curtains used in air-conditioned coaches can be replaced by pure wool. Instead of placing the fire extinguisher near the toilets, these can be placed in each passenger bay. Pressurised water sprinklers, operable from any location in the coach, can be installed.

The door leading to the coach corridor can be made to open outwards, so as to prevent blockage that can be caused by the piling up of bodies near the door entrance in the case of a fire.

The “departmentalism” of the railways has also prevented lasting solutions from being put in place. After every fire, the mechanical directorate — responsible for interior furnishing in coaches — blames the electrical directorate, which is responsible for electrical fittings, and vice versa.

Regulation issues

The nonchalant attitude to passenger deaths largely seems to accrue from the fact that the railways triple up in the roles of an administrator, regulator and operator. While being a business head, the chairman of the Railway Board also enjoys immunity from punitive action by virtue of being the principal secretary to the union government.

Unlike the Motor Vehicles Tribunal, the office of the Chief Commissioner of Railway Safety (CCRS) does not have a quasi-judicial status. The railways can accept or reject the recommendations of the CCRS.

The railways have also remained reluctant to implement the recommendations of the Anil Kakodkar committee on setting up a Safety Regulatory Authority. “We do not feel it is a practical idea,” chairman of the Railway Board Arunendra Kumar said.

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