The Lac-Megantic disaster of 2013

The Indian Railways are often the butt of jokes when a number of accidents happen in succession. But it is cold comfort to know that railway operating procedures in developed countries are far from perfect. As in the case of the derailment followed by fire at Lac-Megantic in Quebec province on July 6, 2013.

Here is a  Powerpoint presentation on this accident, which was used in a conference of safety engineering at IIT Gandhinagar in January 2017.

the-fire-disaster-at-lac-megantic-quebec

Note the videos on slides 8 and 9. They are important in understanding the sequence of events. The one on slide 8 is more accurate and is largely based on the accident investigation report. The one on slide 9 has a serious error as it shows the train slipping backwards, with the tank cars leading the locomotives. In fact the train went down the incline in its existing configuration of locomotives followed by other cars and tank cars.

You may wonder if something like this could happen on the Indian Railways. Certainly a heavy goods train would not be left totally unattended on an incline in mid-section. That is exactly what happened here.

There are a number of safety-related issues which have not been covered above, such as the hazards caused by additives used to increase the viscosity of crude oil for transportation.

For further reading:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lac-M%C3%A9gantic_rail_disaster

http://www.tsb.gc.ca/eng/rapports-reports/rail/2013/r13d0054/r13d0054-r-es.asp

 

 

Travels through the unseen railways of Kolkata

The Kolkata circular railway is one of the least known suburban rail systems of the country. It has little coverage in timetables and elsewhere. It was hastily patched together from existing suburban lines, disused dock lines and freight lines besides a new link to the airport which is little used. To begin with, here is a 2010 map which may give the general orientation:

Kolkata Rail (ER Suburban)

If you were to start your journey at Ballygunge and proceeded west (anticlockwise), this is what it would look like. Note the comments along each station (including a few PJs and historical notes):

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No Sealdah? There is a reason.

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For variety, you can divert from the “circle” at Dum Dum and travel on the still more obscure line to the airport:

airport line

Here are some pictures along the route, taken on 8 Apr 2015:

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The starting point of Ballygunge. Note the crow perched on the loudspeaker.

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While changing trains at Majerhat.

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Along the Hooghly.

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Further along the Hooghly. Below there are various stations along the way:

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Tala is where many of the rakes for trains from Kolkata Terminus are stabled.

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(This is at Kolkata terminus, where the trip to Bangladesh begins.)

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A few short videos along the way can be seen here: Apart from the trip along the Hooghly we also cover the large rust belt towards the airport.

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLpnX2Gw1sU-H9aMWhNlnP1rv3wVvKcBCW

Several longer clips of this route by others can be found on Youtube.

Jessore Road has its place in history with this piece of poetry by American poet Allen Ginsberg written during the tragic events of 1971, though I suppose he was referring to a place in Bangladesh rather than this suburb of Kolkata:

http://www.everyday-beat.org/ginsberg/poems/jessore.txt

Hope that has inspired you to travel along the little known byways of your city.

An odd train accident in the desert

Although the safety record of the Indian Railways has generally improved over the years, unexpected mishaps do occur-like this one in Rajasthan when a runaway coach ran 12 km over a light slope until it was switched into a dead end:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/indiahome/indianews/article-2970913/Pantry-car-narrowly-avoids-disaster-runs-loose-12-kilometres.html

Fortunately there were no casualties (mainly because no one was in the errant coach). And this is a low-traffic route, but level-crossing mishaps could well have happened.

The official information sheet by the railways does hold the shunting staff at Barmer at fault, though they are yet to be punished.

http://safety.indianrail.gov.in/simsenq/ViewAlldataonaccident.asp?acdtid=8145&ctg=acdt

THE RAILWAY BUDGET 2015-AN ALTERNATE VIEW

Every year when the end of February rolls around, attention focuses on the Budget (usually on the last day of the month) and the Railway budget (usually two days earlier). Often more attention is given when a new party comes to power at the centre, since new epoch-making changes are expected. This year is no exception, though mid-term budgets were presented in the middle of 2014 before the new government had really got to work.
Anyone with a reasonable knowledge and interest in the Indian Railways would remember the charms of budgets in the earlier years. The main interest would lie in whether the fares were increased (they usually weren’t), followed by the introduction of new long-distance trains. And the reaction of the general public and the mass media would be predictable-any increase in fares would lead to a predictable outcry and generally the increase would be rolled back. Then there would be cries of “My city X has been neglected-only 3 new trains while city Y has got 5”.
The railfans look at things somewhat differently. These are what the British would call “anoraks”, though they actually come in various shapes, sizes and ages. Some study timetables and railway maps for pleasure, some study the workings of locomotives and signalling systems in great detail, and others may confine themselves to studies of the history of lines and trains or perhaps be satisfied by filming trains and stations. However, most of them usually end up meticulously studying the new trains and their routes as well as the new lines being opened. They have their own websites and forums* where the pros and cons of all new developments are discussed threadbare.That is how things have been in the past few decades.

Much of the charm of the budget used to lie in the little quirks of the Railway Ministers of the past who often used to toss in quotations from the holy books to make a point. They have included colourful characters like Laloo Prasad and Mamata Banerjee, less flamboyant politicians like Nitish Kumar as well as those with a professional background such as Dinesh Trivedi and the incumbent Suresh Prabhu, who is a chartered accountant who is said to be working on two doctorates at the moment.
In most years populist pressures have prevented fares from being raised although some other ways were found to extract more money from the travelling public. These included raising the quota of tatkal (last-moment) berths, introducing premium special trains and even premium tatkal fares and less obvious changes in reservation charges. The public (and even railfans) do not take much interest in increases in freight charges (not surprisingly, since most freight other than bulk commodities like minerals and petroleum products have switched to road transport).
So what was there for railfans to talk about after Mr Prabhu’s Budget on February 26? Not much. This needs some explanation. Previous budget speeches have generally given details on all the new train services, new lines and railway manufacturing units being started, while this time the focus was on the general improvements which were to be made in making railway operations more efficient, safer and capable of carrying more traffic at higher speeds. There was scarcely any mention of specific new trains or facilities (save for a brief mention of studies continuing on the feasibility of the proposed Mumbai-Ahmedabad high-speed service commonly known as the “bullet train”) and the DFCs (Dedicated Freight Corridors) which are known to be between Northern India and the Mumbai area, and between Northern India and the Kolkata area. There was a brief mention that a 55-km section of the eastern DFC in western Bihar would be opened soon, and that tenders for the final stages of both DFCs would be issued soon. A coy mention is made of plans for four new DFCs, though there is no clue as to where they will be laid.
This is, of course, not as exciting as the announcement of a new express train between Bangalore and Dibrugarh or even a new suburban service between Lucknow and Bara Banki. Some more specific details were given about rail connections to various ports which few of us have heard about. One of them is in Gujarat’s Kutch region called Tuna, although I doubt if you will find tuna in the seas around this port.
This budget does however go into considerable detail about how life is to be made easier for the ordinary traveller-such as how an unreserved ticket could be purchased within 5 minutes of entering the station premises, increasing the number of mobile charging points in coaches, introduction of concierge services at larger stations and even the facility of ordering wheelchairs at your destination.
There is also considerable stress on improving the cleanliness of trains and stations (being part of the Prime Minister’s “Clean India” initiative) and food service (which, with some exceptions, is generally considered to be unsatisfactory). All of these are laudable objectives which show that the Minister and his team have done some serious thinking about the future of the Railways and their important role in the country’s economy.
The saturation of the major routes (often known as the Golden Quadrilateral linking the four major cities) is recognized as a serious bottleneck in improving traffic capacity, and improving this by adding extra tracks, crossings and electrification if necessary. All of this requires large amounts of funding, but this should not be difficult to obtain from a supportive Centre.
To sum up, this Railway Budget does make a welcome change from the populism of the past 20-odd years and shows clear thinking about the problems and prospects of the railway system. But many of those who follow the Railways may be disappointed by the lack of specific details about new passenger services, though they should appreciate the move to improve the rail traveller’s general experience and comfort.

*The most popular Indian railfan group runs the website www.irfca.org which has an active discussion forum, although it needs registration if you want to participate.