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.


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:



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:

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.

A nasty accident for the new year.

The new year has begun on a bad note for railway safety with a rather nasty accident near Jalandhar, which has not got much coverage in the national media. This clipping and picture tell the story:

JUC acc

For the record, this is the 74934 Firozpur Cantt-Jalandhar City DMU passenger and the accident is between Khojewala and DAV College stations on the Firozpur-Jalandhar section, close to the latter. This is a moderately busy branch line of the NR with a few long-distance expresses and several passenger trains (mainly DMUs). Fog was a factor, but then a loco pilot would not expect there to be a vehicle on the track near a manned crossing. Based on the report, the station staff had sent a message to the gateman who acknowledged it. Why the gate was left open is not immediately clear. Whereas accidents at unmanned crossings are almost invariably the fault of the road user, accidents at manned crossings are most likely to be the fault of railway staff. It could be the fault of the gateman or the staff at the controlling station. In some cases the train may not have followed speed restrictions and other regulations. Other things which have happened on IR include the road users threatening or otherwise persuading the gateman to open the gate, forcibly opening the gate themselves  and on rare occasions overspeeding and crashing through closed gates. If one looks through the records of the past 5 years or so there will be examples of all these events.

In this case a total of 3 persons were killed and 3 injured. Apart from the tractor driver, all the other victims were railway employees. Apart from the LP and ALP, the others may have been in the front portion which was badly damaged as you can see. In fact the LP and ALP are particularly vulnerable in EMUs and DMUs as they have little protection in the front when compared to a regular loco (even types like the WAP-4 or WAP-5). If a single tractor could cause so much destruction then some rethinking needs to be done. The Kakodkar high-level safety review had called for the elimination of all level crossings and progress is slowly being made in this, though the main lines would generally get priority over the branch lines. And the crashworthiness of the front cabs of this variety of DMU need to be reconsidered. One would guess that if the train had been hauled by a regular loco (such as a WDM-2) there would not have been any casualties from the train.

In spite of what the mass media may say, railway safety has shown a considerable improvement over the years with the accident rate per train km steadily declining over the past half-century or more. But the carelessness of one individual can put all systems to nought.

The casual reader may say that automated level crossings with automatic lowering of barriers may have prevented this. Some of us may have seen these in the US and other Western countries. But accidents happen even there when the mechanism is working fine. The classic case was this one in the UK:  where a slow-moving heavy load could not get through the crossing in the specified time before the train reached. And any complicated mechanism used by the railways and left unattended by the trackside would be vulnerable to vandalism and theft (even the 25 Kv overhead lines do get stolen).

Of course, the gateman may not have been the sole culprit and there may be some other cause. But this accident should cause concern to the higher levels of the railways even though the casualties were not spectacular enough to make headlines.