New Delhi, Aug 13 (Calcutta Tube) It has been eight years since a safety device like the Anti-Collision Device (ACD) was designed, tested and certified for use by the Research Designs and Standards Organisation (RDSO), the railway ministry’s apex research body. But despite repeated assurances by the railway ministry, no progress seems to have been made in its implementation even as there have been 13 accidents this year alone claiming nearly 250 lives and maiming many more.
An off-hand remark made by V.K. Agarwal, then chairman of the Railway Board, to a visitor in the mid 1999 – about how there was no way to prevent a speeding train from colliding with derailed coaches from another train that clutter up parallel tracks – spurred the development of an indigenous technology like the ACD.
Agarwal was referring to a particularly horrific accident near Ludhiana in November 1998, in which the Sealdah Express had rammed into the derailed coaches of the Golden Temple Mail, which littered the opposite track, killing over 212 people. This kind of an accident is called ‘track fouling’.
The remark, made in the presence of B. Rajaram, then managing director of the Konkan Railway MD, inspired him in mid-1999 to begin developing a safety device that would take care of such eventualities.
‘I wrote out a simple one page outline of the concept and forwarded it to the Railway Board with a copy to S.M. Vaish, member of the Khanna Committee for Railway Safety. Vaish called me up and told me to use my own discretion as Konkan Railway MD,’ Rajaram told IANS in an interview.
‘I devoted practically five to six hours daily to refining the concept, toiling until late nights, as my own responsibilities as the head honcho of the nascent Konkan Railway left me with very little time during the day,’ he said.
‘My junior colleagues were rather sceptical about the possibility of the safety device ever materialising in the short run. However, when I did succeed in producing workable prototypes much later, they all felt proud,’ said Rajaram.
‘Even to produce the first prototype, I had to adopt an out of the box approach. I roped in Motorola, Tata Unysis (then working with me on Konkan Railway software project) and Kernex Microsystems, involved in data logging and integrating track circuitry with Tata software requirements.
‘Ultimately, Kernex Microsystems produced one of the two prototypes, which proved itself in actual testing with then Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee riding in the loco in January 2000 to see how ACDs could stop two trains on the same track. She eventually okayed the project,’ said Rajaram.
The railway ministry incorporated the ACD into the Konkan Railway and the Northeast Frontier Railway, two of the most challenging zones topographically, after thorough certification by the RDSO, as well as by Lloyd’s Register Rail of the UK.
‘The Railway Board started erecting roadblocks for the ACDs from 2002 by directing repeated revision of norms, entailing several cycles of fresh tests lasting many months, which continues to this day,’ rued Rajaram.
‘Software developers can vouch how serious it becomes if you keep tinkering with acceptance requirements and concept design documents.’
‘Many senior railway officials are genuinely ignorant and accept such suggestions slipped in by people who know and have successfully lobbied against the ACD all these years. They are the representatives of multinationals,’ said Rajaram.
Besides, ‘every time a (Railway) Board member changes, which happens every two years, he takes almost a year to learn something about the ACD and convince himself.
‘It is a matter of record that not a single Board member took interest and rode a locomotive with ACD to see for himself (how it worked), in the period I was developing the technology. But all the (rail) ministers did take a positive interest,’ Rajaram told IANS.
‘The ACD is not only nearly 10 times cheaper than the European Train Protection and Warning System (TPWS) costing Rs.7 million, but does many things beyond the scope of TPWS, which the railways are so keen on procuring,’ Rajaram said.
For instance, ‘the ACD prevents collisions, or even when a train is speeding towards another stationary one on the same track. It averts accidents when a track is ‘fouled up.’ It detects when coaches get uncoupled, or a loco is operating without a driver. Independent of signals and human inputs, ACDs create an ever present ‘raksha kavach’ (protective shield). ACDs protect manned and unmanned gates too,’ said Rajaram.
‘ACDs fill up the gaps of what existing systems cannot do, like averting collisions even in block sections (the distance between two stations beyond the range of signals) and in foggy weather when signals are not visible,’ said Rajaram.
Indian Railways runs the world’s second largest network under a single management, ferrying 18 million passengers and 850 million tonnes of cargo on 17,000 trains daily.
(Shudip Talukdar can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)